Domestic Violence Cases Gain Prominence on Police Blotters

EDWARD McLaughlin, chief inspector of the Philadelphia Police Department, remembers how his father used to beat him and his mother. His father broke his arm, McLaughlin says, and burned him with cigarettes.

But Chief McLaughlin didn't become a cop to fight domestic violence. In fact, he says, he had been an officer for 20 years before he understood the role police could play in combatting abuse of women and children.

''It wasn't until I got whacked over the head, figuratively, by women's groups that I realized the importance of the problem and the need for police involvement,'' says McLaughlin.

That was 10 years ago. Since then Pennsylvania has passed a law calling for mandatory arrest in cases where police find ''probable cause'' to believe someone has committed domestic violence. The Philadelphia Police Department has done its part by establishing domestic-violence response teams which respond to 911 calls, work with women's groups and shelters, and help victims through the court system.

Long before the O.J. Simpson murder case called attention to domestic violence, some police departments around the country were already focusing on the problem. Recently, however, support for improving response has gained momentum. This year, 39 states have passed laws on domestic violence.

In San Diego, homicides related to domestic violence dropped from an average of 20 per year in 1990 and 1991 to 10 or less annually between 1992 and 1994. In Nashville, Tenn., a city of about 1 million people, there have been six domestic murders this year, compared with 15 for all of last year, and about 24 per year between 1990 and 1993.

But these are cities that have gone after the problem. ''The nation as a whole is a patchwork; some departments get it and some don't,'' says Sergeant Mark Wynn of the Nashville Police Department, who trains police departments around the country and internationally on domestic-violence response.

''Efforts are starting to bring more and more police departments in line,'' says Sergeant Wynn, who appeared at the White House last week in a ceremony marking October as Domestic Violence Month. ''It's a matter of changing the attitudes of traditional law enforcement. We've been burying too many women in this country.''

Since the mid-1980s, legal changes have given police officers in some states the tools they need to treat domestic violence seriously. Detective Dan Dennis, a 20-year veteran of the San Diego Police Department, recalls how he used to respond to domestic-violence calls in his early days as a policeman: ''We'd separate the man and the woman, find out what the problem was, ask one to leave for the night, and then walk away. We wouldn't file any report, as if nothing had happened.''

In the early 1990s, California passed a law requiring police to file reports on all domestic disturbance calls, thus allowing prosecutors to establish patterns of abuse for some people. The state also now requires that if one person in a domestic disturbance scene is visibly injured, the other person must go to jail.

At least 16 states now have mandatory arrest laws, and many others have laws that require police to presume that arrest is the desired response to a domestic-abuse scene.

Chief McLaughlin of Philadelphia notes that focusing on domestic violence helps police better use their resources. McLaughlin coordinated a ''repeat-call analysis project'' and found that in 1994, almost one in three calls was in response to domestic violence.

By focusing on what has become a major time-consumer for police, McLaughlin hopes Philadelphia can curb the need to make repeated visits to some households and put offenders behind bars ''before they're arrested for doing something bigger,'' he says.

Nationwide, ''the biggest issue now is education: judges, attorneys, public defenders, law enforcement, school personnel,'' says Kathleen Baker, an attorney at the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. ''We need everyone to start thinking of domestic violence as a crime and not a family matter.''

States have taken a variety of approaches in dealing with domestic violence. Some have passed laws focusing on education; others have funded studies. Six states have passed laws regarding domestic-violence perpetrators and the use of weapons. Ms. Baker also reports a new movement to curb discrimination against victims of domestic abuse with regard to health and life insurance.

In Congress, the Violence Against Women Act - which includes funding for domestic-violence programs nationwide - appears set to keep its full funding, after budget-cutters tried to reduce or eliminate the program.

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