The D.C. police department, in a new effort to deter spouse abuse, is instructing officers this week for the first time to make arrests when they have strong reason to believe that violence occurred in domestic disturbance calls.
In the past, such disputes have been treated as private matters, with police rarely making arrests.
Under new guidelines issued by Police Chief Maurice T. Turner Jr., officers must consider arrests if there is visible injury to one of the parties, need for medical treatment, witnesses to an attack, involvement of weapons, furniture in disarray or threats made in an officer's presence, among other factors.
Domestic violence guidelines reflect a national trend toward strengthening protection for victims of spouse abuse, domestic violence experts say. Women's advocacy groups, which have long pressured D.C. police to follow this trend, applauded the new order and predicted that it could prompt more arrests and a decline in domestic violence.
"It's a tremendous turnaround," said Meshall Thomas, director of the Women's Legal Defense Fund's emergency domestic relations project and president of the D.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
"If enforced, police will be treating criminal offenses in a domestic incident like any other crime."
Police officials characterize the new "pro-arrest" order as an effort to discourage officers from walking away from domestic violence as they often did when D.C. police operated with no specific policy, using their own discretion.
"Society has taken a different view of domestic violence than existed 10 years ago," said Capt. William White III, a police spokesman.
"The police department tries to take a contemporary and pro-active approach to society's views and adjust our policies and procedures accordingly."
The District, however, has lagged behind several other cities and surrounding jurisdictions that have instituted domestic policy guidelines, officials say.
Baltimore County, San Francisco, New York City, Seattle, Los Angeles, Minneapolis and Denver have issued aggressive domestic violence guidelines or have imposed mandatory arrest policies, according to Joan Meier, a lawyer who has represented battered women and worked with D.C. police to draft the new order.
Prince George's County issued domestic violence guidelines last year and will launch a computerized information system to assist officers investigating domestic disputes by quickly tracing whether a family has a history of abuse, said Capt. Jack San Felice, a police spokesman.
Montgomery County also has guidelines, although they do not detail what police should consider before making an arrest in a domestic dispute.
Officials in Fairfax and Prince William counties said the decision to make arrests in domestic violence cases are left to officers' discretion.
The District's new directive instructs officers that criminal offenses occurring in domestic situations "shall be reported and investigated as would any other criminal offense, regardless of the relationship of the victim and the offender."
Police are instructed not to avoid arrests in domestic cases because of speculation that a victim may drop charges or the case may not result in a conviction. In addition, officers are urged not to consider whether the incident occurred in a private place or consider assurances by an attacker that violence will end, or claims by one party that the other provoked the violence.
The guidelines also instruct officers to consider arrests after assessing the demeanor of the victim, and when the offender has violated court orders to either vacate or stay away from a certain location.
"There was a reluctance in the past to become involved in family situations," said Lt. David Sargent, who helped formulate the guidelines. "All of our training had been directed toward mediation and referral."
One woman who was referred to mediation was Gina Wood, 20, a D.C. government worker. She went to police in March after her ex-boyfriend, James Jerome Sims, allegedly harassed and assaulted her. But Sims was not arrested, and Wood was referred to the city's Citizen Complaint Center where she received a civil restraining order against Sims.
A few weeks later, Wood's charred body with several stab wounds was found in the rubble of Sims' burned apartment. He was charged with second-degree murder.
Although men are also victims of domestic violence, the majority of victims in such cases are women. Nearly 1,350 women nationwide were killed by spouses, ex-spouses or boyfriends in 1985, according to FBI crime statistics. "Their deaths are almost always the result of a history of beatings," said Meier. Hundreds of thousands more are violently beaten each year.
More than 7,000 women each year report battering incidents in the District, according to the Women's Legal Defense Fund.
The FBI estimates that battering incidents occur 10 times more often than they are reported. According to the Women's Legal Defense Fund, a woman is beaten once every 18 seconds.
Police rarely make arrests in these cases, according to domestic violence experts. Some officers argue that they are reluctant to arrest a spouse-abuser because the charges are usually dropped. Other officers say that it is more dangerous for police to get involved in domestic fights than other disturbances. But critics charge that underlying police resistance to arrest is the attitude that domestic violence is not a real crime.
Last year Leedonyell Williams called police to report that her ex-boyfriend, Michael Anthony Scott, had broken into her apartment, held her at gunpoint and threatened to kill her, according to court documents.
Williams was arrested but charges were dropped because the case was considered domestic violence, D.C. prosecutors said. The next day, Williams was shot and killed in the stairwell of her apartment building. Scott was charged with first-degree murder.
Supporters of new D.C. guidelines worry that the rules may not go far enough, leaving too much discretion to officers at the scene of an incident.
Thomas of the Women's Legal Defense Fund, says vague language in the guidelines may allow police to mediate in some cases rather than make arrests. Under the guidelines, police who respond to a verbal dispute and have no reason to believe a crime has been committed are instructed to mediate the dispute and refer the parties to one of eight counseling agencies.
"Arrests in domestic violence incidents will increase only if the new guidelines are actually enforced," said Thomas. "Since the police are accustomed to negotiating rather than arresting, the department must undertake a comprehensive training and education program to orient police to a new and strong arrest policy."
Others say that although the order instructs police to consider arrest under certain conditions, the final decision on what constitutes "probable cause" to arrest is left to individual officers.
"I think it's a very positive first step," said Meier. "But I am skeptical about how much difference it can make in police practices without a fundamental overhaul of police attitudes and understanding of domestic violence."
Sargent said the new guidelines will help police deal more effectively with domestic violence. "I think we've responded to domestic violence in a positive way. At this time, I think we've gone as far as we should as a police department. If further information becomes available to us down the road that shows us we need to take different steps, we will take the steps we need to."