"Are you left-handed or right-handed?" Prince George's County Sheriff's Deputy Daniel Bahena asked the man in the back seat of his cruiser.
"Right-handed," the man said, shifting his weight in the seat. "I'm not trying to get out of the car. I'm just moving around to get the handcuffs in a better place. Anyway, like I was saying, she called me and told me to come over and show her the warrant I had on her. She said she . . . "
Nearby, the man's wife briefed Bahena's partner, Deputy John Carr. Only hours earlier, she appeared before a court commissioner in Hyattsville asking that her husband be barred from their Greenbelt apartment. She wanted him jailed for battery.
"Are you employed?" Bahena asked her husband, interrupting the man's diatribe. "Do you do any drugs?"
As Bahena wrote down answers, the 27-year-old man kept trying to give his side of the story: He was the victim. He had a protective order against his wife.
"Why am I the only one getting locked up?" he asked?
It was three hours into a 12-hour shift for the Domestic Violence Unit of the Prince George's Sheriff's Department, which is part of a larger effort to address domestic abuse in the county, which sees more protective orders filed each month than any other county in Maryland.
The unit works every day to serve protective and peace orders, which are intended to keep abusers away from their victims, and to serve arrest warrants on people accused of crimes related to domestic violence, officials said.
After an Oxon Hill man killed his wife in March 2003 within a day of being ordered to stay away from her, Prince George's officials launched a string of initiatives aimed at protecting victims of domestic abuse.
The measures require public safety dispatchers to give "urgent" status to calls reporting people with protective orders. State's Attorney Glenn Ivey created a domestic violence unit, with three prosecutors assigned full time to domestic cases. District court officials established a domestic violence docket and misdemeanor cases are heard one day each week in Upper Marlboro and Hyattsville, instead of being mixed in with other court cases.
And Sheriff Michael Jackson pledged last year to increase the number of sworn deputies on his agency's unit to 20 and to assign them to work round-the-clock to keep up with the huge volume of orders. They deliver the orders, escort accused abusers away from their homes, arrest those who violate the orders and assist abuse victims.
Each month, the Prince George's Sheriff's Department serves more than 1,200 orders from the court, according to statistics from the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence. Before the task force was started, that figure was 250.
"It's constant," Carr said. "The paperwork just keeps coming and coming. We have a lot to do."
Last year, the unit served 7,137 orders, compared to 5,883 in Baltimore, and 2,443 in Montgomery County, network records show. In the District, the U.S. Attorney's office handled about 4,000 petitions for civil orders. The Fairfax County's Sheriff's Department estimated about 700 orders, but far more domestic violence calls.
A ballot measure that Maryland voters approved in 2002 allows abuse victims to seek domestic orders 24 hours a day, and counties across the state have begun making commissioners available -- or on call -- at all hours. Prince George's is the only county in the area that has a law enforcement unit dedicated solely to serving those orders.
Prince George's residents can file complaints at any time, at any courthouse and at a police substation at the Eastover Shopping Center near the District line. In the District, victims of domestic violence can petition for a temporary protection order or a civil order in court or at two domestic violence intake centers. In Virginia, victims of abuse can appear before a judge or magistrate to request a protective order, or an arrest warrant if a crime has occurred.
Prince William County Commonwealth's Attorney Paul B. Ebert said Virginia has a "pro-arrest policy," meaning that officers responding to a domestic violence call must make an arrest if they can determine who the "primary aggressor" is.
Ebert said Prince William logs more than 10,000 domestic violence calls a year. "It's a mind-boggling statistic," he said. "A lot of our murders are domestic. With a few exceptions, these are people who have been involved in the court system."
Officials in Prince George's believe they are only scratching the surface.
"Research shows that only about one-quarter of all domestic abuses are ever reported, so if we are dealing with roughly 1,200 per month, you can do the math to see what it would be like if even half the people victimized by it reported it," Jackson said. "We are trying to be proactive and create a comfort level for victims to stop this because eventually it spills over to our kids and becomes a problem for them."
Ivey, who was elected prosecutor in 2002, also has made domestic violence a priority. In addition to dedicating prosecutors to the crime, he created the Domestic Violence Survivors Network, a volunteer group that provides guidance and support to victims. Authorities said Maryland has no domestic violence law; instead, domestic abuse suspects face such charges as harassment, assault, battery and attempted murder.
"I've been to the most elite neighborhoods and the most impoverished," said Lt. Daniel Hall, who heads the Prince George's domestic violence unit. "I've been to gated communities and places where people have trouble making their rent."
The sheriff's unit includes four squads, each with four officers and a sergeant who work 12-hour shifts. On a recent shift, Carr and Bahena concentrated on 14 orders. Besides arresting the man in Greenbelt, they arrested another man accused of stalking his girlfriend despite a stay-away order; they served orders in Oxon Hill and Greenbelt requiring men accused of abusing their partners to leave their homes while the deputies were present; they worked on two emergency psychological commitments cases at Prince George's Hospital; they served five peace or protective orders and attempted to deliver five more, including one to an executive at a Largo firm, but were unable to locate the respondents. They also broke up a fight between a man and a woman on the street in Riverdale.
On a previous shift, Carr and Deputy Marvin Robinson served a "stand-by" order, escorting a woman home to pack after she was barred from her home by an order her husband obtained. As she shoved bedding and clothing into plastic bags, she talked to the officers about the couple's troubles. Her husband didn't appreciate a good woman, she said.
"You better pray," she told her husband, as the deputies walked her outside.
"Is that a threat?" Robinson asked. "If you threaten, we have to take you to jail."
Sgt. Keith Bageant, who supervises domestic violence deputies, said such vacate orders are often the most difficult to serve.
"They feel like they are being put out of their homes and we are the instrument of the court that is actually enforcing it. So they get mad at the instrument," he said.
"They keep talking to try to explain to you what happened. They want somebody to hear their side of the story. They don't realize there's nothing we can do about it even if we do believe them. Our job is just to enforce the orders."