Colorado Offers Answers On Domestic Violence

Activist policy serves as a model for other states

COLORADO is emerging as one of the most aggressive states in the fight against domestic violence at a time when advocacy groups and others are pushing for new ways to curb the problem.

Amid the klieg-light attention over the O.J. Simpson case, lawmakers from Washington, D.C., to Washington State are revisiting whether to tighten domestic-abuse laws. Colorado's broad system of protections - though not embraced by all - is one approach being looked at as a ``national model.''

``They have done an awful lot to lay the groundwork,'' says Rita Smith, Denver-based coordinator of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

The system is the product of a series of lawsuits, judicial reforms, treatment programs, and other initiatives that have evolved over the past decade. The capstone of the state's effort, however, came last year with the passage of a package of domestic violence bills.

Many of the measures have just taken effect. Among the key provisions:

* Police are required to make arrests when responding to domestic violence calls if they believe abuse has occurred. Officers cannot just wait until a suspect cools down. The suspect must be taken into custody. The rationale: It gives a victim time to leave the house, if necessary, and tells the alleged abuser that the incident is being taken seriously.

At least 25 states now have mandatory-arrest laws.

* In Colorado, arrests are mandatory for those who violate restraining orders, and jail time is required for subsequent violations. Victims' advocates contend that, without such teeth, restraining orders too often do not deter violent offenders. The state also now mandates treatment for abusive family members.

* A statewide registry is being set up to keep track of restraining orders and incidents of domestic violence. Such a system, rare among the states, would give authorities a better history of abuse cases, enhancing prosecution and treatment.

``All this really changes the way Colorado deals with domestic violence on every front,'' says Jan Mickish, executive director of the Colorado Domestic Violence Coalition.

Some other states have only recently acted on the problem. New York recently passed a sweeping bill that, like Colorado's, mandates arrest for any person who commits a domestic assault.

California lawmakers are considering setting up a computerized registry of restraining orders and gun confiscations from men arrested for domestic violence. Uncertain yet is whether the Violence Against Women Act, part of the crime bill now before Congress, will pass.

Pushed by women's groups, which have capitalized on the Simpson case to further their campaign against domestic violence, the act would make gender-biased crimes a violation of a woman's civil rights. Victims would be eligible for compensatory relief and punitive damages.

Colorado's new laws are partly intended to make practices uniform throughout the state. Denver, for example, has long had a policy of mandatory arrest. Many rural jurisdictions haven't. The new laws clarify and expand the definition of domestic violence.

To supporters, the measures signal that criminal abuse in the home won't be tolerated, while offering additional protections to victims. They note that the intent is not to punish abusers, but to show them that they are responsible for what they do.

``We are saying this behavior is unacceptable,'' says Barbara Shaw, a consultant to Project Safeguard, a Denver group that provides legal and other assistance to battered women. ``It is like drunk driving: it is a crime, it is your responsibility, and we won't tolerate it.''

Not everyone is impressed. Some defense attorneys argue that the laws are too strong, especially the mandatory-arrest statute. They say it is not always clear in domestic violence cases who is at fault. Terence Quinn, a lawyer in Eagle, Colo., says it would be better for police to separate people until things calm down, and then figure out what happened.

``It is too simplistic of a solution,'' he says. ``Whoever gets to the phone first and dials 911 is going to get the other person arrested.''

Others worry that an arrest might push an enraged person to greater violence. They believe there are cases in which discretion would be in the better interest of the family.

For these reasons, some battered women's organizations around the nation have opposed the proliferation of mandatory-arrest laws.

Supporters of the Colorado law note that police must show probable cause to arrest. Needed now, they say, is more education -

of police, prosecutors, and everyone involved in the criminal justice system about what should be done, and how.

``We still need education and training,'' says Dora-Lee Larson, executive director of Project Safeguard.

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