NASHVILLE — ON a balmy Tuesday night, Nashville police detective Tim Sneed guns his patrol car into the parking lot of a brick apartment complex. He pulls up next to a construction worker dressed in T-shirt, jeans, and white cap.
''I have a warrant for your arrest,'' the plainclothes cop tells the construction worker.
''For what?'' he asks defiantly.
''For harassing somebody,'' says Mr. Sneed, snapping handcuffs on the man's wrists.
Later, in a booking room at the police department in downtown Nashville, Sneed explains to the man that his ex-girlfriend has accused him of making harassing phone calls, slashing her car tires, and breaking the windshield.
For Sneed, arresting stalkers, talking to victims, and issuing orders of protection is all in a day's work.
He is part of a police unit specially trained to cope with domestic violence - one of the most ambitious attempts in the country to curb a growing social problem.
For a handful of police forces nationwide, dealing with domestic violence has become as much a part of their routine as issuing parking tickets and rounding up burglars.
Pushed by grim statistics and a heightened public awareness, cities such as Seattle and Duluth, Minn., have created special police units and training programs for judges and prosecutors. Victims, often told to ''kiss and make up'' or made to believe they were responsible for their abuser's actions in the past, are now finding the criminal-justice system has become their ally.
And Nashville has pushed these efforts as far as anyone in the country, becoming a model for other police forces and communities of how to successfully combat violence against women.
Begun in August 1994, the Domestic Violence Division of Nashville's Metropolitan Police Department has achieved dramatic results. Murders resulting from domestic violence cases in Nashville hovered between 23 and 25 per year from 1990 to 1993, but last year fell to 15 and to six in the first 10 months of 1995. It's one of the biggest reductions any unit in the country has experienced in such a short time.
''They're heading in the right direction, and they're heading there faster than probably anyone in the country,'' says Casey Gwinn, who runs the San Diego city attorney's domestic violence unit.
The manpower Nashville has put toward tackling domestic violence - a unit of 34 specially trained investigators - is the largest effort by a metropolitan area in the nation. In most precincts, one, maybe two investigators will be assigned domestic violence cases. In many departments, there are no specialized investigators at all.
Before Nashville's unit was created, only one detective was assigned to follow up on the 18,000 domestic violence calls per year, patrol officers dealt with domestic cases, and those in homicide handled murders. And Sgt. Mark Wynn estimates that actual domestic violence cases are twice the number he hears about, based on Justice Department statistics.
The effort here, though, is not limited to law enforcement. All sectors of the criminal-justice system collaborate, and that is the recipe for the success, says Wynn, a former victim of domestic violence. ''Now the district attorney has a special prosecution unit, the courts have special dockets just for domestic cases ... the jail has a batterers' program to deal with batterers who are incarcerated. We're closer to making the system better for the victims.''
The key is more preventative work, Wynn adds. On the law enforcement end, for example, officers are writing more orders of protection. They also help women devise a personalized safety plan that helps increase their safety and prepares them in advance for the possibility of further violence. If the officer has enough information, he will obtain a warrant for the offender's arrest.
Detectives now do what's called ''stalking the stalker'' if they believe a victim is at a high risk of being harmed. This includes stalking the batterer, putting a trace on his phone, videotaping his actions, and the victim's employer to notify the police if the offender is nearby.
The officers in the division are all prepared to deal with domestic violence cases. ''There are three things I tell police officers when I train them,'' Wynn says. ''If you just tell these three things to a victim: I'm sorry this happened to you, it's not your fault, and we're going to help you,'' that helps build trust and enables police to get the information they need to make a better case.
Other cities are also combining efforts between police and courts and achieving dramatic results. San Diego, for one, whose program Nashville modeled its after, has seen a 70 percent drop in the domestic murder rate since it began its effort to end violence against women.
The Nashville initiative has been a lifesaver for many women, says Katie Griffith, director of the city's YWCA Battered Women's Shelter. ''Before, when women dealt with police they were not getting their needs met,'' she says. ''Now the women feel like they are listened to, like they have someone who knows the situation and is not just telling the batterer to walk around and cool off.''
While Nashville can chalk up early successes, some warn they must be put in context. ''You can't look at the score at the end of the first quarter and conclude you've won the game,'' Mr. Gwinn says. ''While I think it's incredibly positive that homicides have dropped so significantly in Nashville, it's naive to think the problem has been solved. The challenge is what's going to happen over the next five or 10 years.''