Six short-stemmed red roses in wine glasses surrounded the same number of varied place settings on a round table with a white tablecloth at the front of the Laurel Police Department's Partnership Activity Center. A lavender candle emitted a haunting glow on photographs at some place settings, which in addition to dishes and silverware, also included eyeglasses, a conch shell, an album, a novel, a pacifier and a football.
The display, which had yellow police tape wrapped around it, was filled with personal items of domestic violence victims from 6 to 35 years old who had been killed in Maryland from 1995 to 2004. Titled "An Empty Place at the Table," the exhibit served as the backdrop for the Thursday, Oct. 20, kickoff of the Laurel Police Department's domestic violence initiative.
In their effort to reduce and eliminate domestic violence in the area, and aid victims, police officials have formed partnerships with organizations from around the state such as the House of Ruth, the county's State's Attorney Office, Family Crisis Center, the hospital system and the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence. They plan to work closely together, share information and make referrals to each other on domestic violence cases in the Laurel area.
"I have a heartfelt compassion for domestic violence, and for years, domestic violence was not handled aggressively," said Laurel Police Chief Richard McLaughlin. "Domestic violence is a crime that's sometimes minimized to a degree … and was seen as taboo to talk about outside of the home. But we want the public to know that we are open to documenting cases, and our officers are committed to this program. We're taking a more aggressive stance on domestic violence and doing more in-house training on it."
In fact, as of this week, all of the department's police officers have completed training on how to handle domestic violence cases in terms of identifying it and responding to victims' individual needs.
Series of forums planned
During Thursday's kickoff, organizations partnering with the city had display tables with information on their services and resources available to victims, ranging from legal assistance and preparation for court to counseling, shelter locations and 24-hour emergency hotlines.
Beginning Dec. 6, the partners will hold the first in a series of forums on domestic violence at the Police Department. The meetings will focus on various issues associated with abuse and will be held the first Thursday of each month.
"This is phenomenal and one–of-a-kind work being done here in Laurel," said Ada Clark-Edwards, chief of Prince George's State's Attorney's domestic violence unit. "I fully expect Laurel's program will be a model for other agencies in our county on how to respond to domestic violence."
MNADV consultant Dave Sargent agreed. He added, "This is a unique type of domestic violence effort that's not being done in communities anywhere in the country. You've put a lot of work into this, and it will continue to be a lot of work."
McLaughlin said when he became police chief last year, strengthening the department's domestic violence resources was a top priority he discussed with Mayor Craig Moe.
Moe attended the kickoff and gave McLaughlin a proclamation in recognition of October as National Domestic Violence Month.
For the past year, Laurel Police Maj. Robert Althoff, who oversees the program, has worked with other staff members in creating a domestic violence resource data base for the department and identifying partners for the initiative.
"We met with the State's Attorney's Office, and we got the best of the best to partner with Laurel's Police Department," Althoff said. "Through this program, we're going to do follow-up with domestic violence victims and spread the word about our monthly programs. I also have a vision to find buildings to create shelters so parents and children can stay together, and won't be separated."
Program helps officers assess domestic violence
In addition to having officers complete domestic violence training classes, the department is now using MNADV's domestic violence Lethality Assessment Program, LAP, which uses a series of 11 questions officers can ask a suspected victim to determine if that person is at risk of being seriously injured or killed by an intimate partner. If the risk is determined to be high, the victim is immediately connected with a domestic violence service provider.
MNADV officials point to LAP as one of the reasons law enforcement statistics show a drop in domestic violence cases, which are down in the state by 40 percent.
A county state's attorney official said 2,100 Prince George's County domestic violence cases have been filed in District Court this year, compared to 2,330 this time last year.
According to MNADV statistics, domestic violence deaths are down in Maryland as well, dropping to 38 in fiscal year 2010, compared to 53 the previous year and 75 in 2008. Of the latest figures, two of the deaths occurred in Prince George's, down from eight reported this time last year.
However in Laurel, although he did not have definitive numbers, McLaughlin said, "I'm seeing a lot more domestic violence cases than I can ever remember. And unfortunately, we had a domestic violence death, the first homicide-suicide I can remember in Laurel."
McLaughlin was referring to the Sept. 14 murder of 26-year-old Brandice Marie Jones, who was shot multiple times on Shiloh Court in front of her children by her ex-boyfriend, 38-year-old Javan Terrance Abney, of Washington. Abney fled and shortly afterward, shot himself in the head.
A 'positive impact'
Through the new domestic violence initiative, city and police officials hope to make the Police Department a one-stop place where domestic violence victims will feel comfortable coming to get help and information on whatever assistance they may need. Arleen Joell, executive director of Community Advocates for Family and Youth, a nonprofit victims' assistance and advocacy organization, predicted that the Laurel domestic violence initiative will have a positive impact on the community.
"How powerful is it to bring together groups that can help change lives," Joell said. "In 2008, we started working with Prince George's by putting our advocates in police stations, and we hope to do that here, too. You are the first responders to victims … but it takes everybody in this room to make a difference, and I'm excited to be a part of this."
So is Doreen Nionakis, owner of Hey Red hair salon on Main Street. For seven years, Nionakis has provided pamphlets at her salon with domestic violence information in English and Spanish.
"This is a very intimate business, and I get to know clients and learn of their home life and relationships with boyfriends," Nionakis said. "I can direct them to places for help if they need it, and some clients discreetly take the information I have at the salon. I'm looking forward to working with the police and will try to get the Laurel Board of Trade to have domestic violence information placed in doctors' offices, restaurants and other businesses."
Elissa Levine, counseling program manager at the House of Ruth on Route 1, in Beltsville, reminded those in attendance of the deadliness of domestic violence and said the Laurel Police Department's initiative is an important effort needed to save lives.
"Victims leave empty places at the table when they are forced to flee or are killed," said Levine, who set up the "Empty Place at the Table" display. "We need to remember the victims and speak out because if we keep silent, lives will be lost, and there will be more empty places at the table."