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More action urged on domestic crime 20,000 complaints of violence received


Baltimore police fielded nearly 20,000 domestic violence complaints during the first three months of this year, but the city's criminal justice system is not responding strongly enough to these complaints, according to representatives from the House of Ruth, a shelter for battered women.

Carole Alexander and Jann Jackson, staff members at the House of Ruth, recently made public a report from Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's Domestic Violence Coordinating Committee. The report concludes that the "volume of domestic violence cases is burgeoning" and that "it is clear that victims of domestic violence are not being protected."

The report's "action plan" calls for increasing conviction rates, decreasing the number of defendants released on their own recognizance, and improving the current system for compiling statistics. By tracking the complaints from the first call to 911 through the courts, the report provides the following glimpses of domestic violence in Baltimore:

* Police reports were filed in only one-fifth -- 4,000 -- of the nearly 20,000 incidents of domestic violence reported during the first three months of the year, and arrests were made about 3 percent of the time. By comparison, more than half of all calls to 911 result in written reports, and arrests are made in 5 percent of them.

* In three-quarters of the domestic violence cases, victims had visible injuries. The victims were overwhelmingly female, but 14 percent were males.

* In 1992, slightly more than half of those arrested were released on their own recognizance. The state's attorney's office had a conviction rate of about 30 percent.

* Of the 137 homicides in the city this year, 14 were related to domestic violence.

"These are preventable homicides," said Ms. Jackson, who co-chairs the committee with Judge Mary Ellen Rinehardt. "And Baltimore needs its homicide rate to go down. We can't do anything about the drive-by shootings, but we can do something about these."

The report is based on statistics collected by the police, the city state's attorney's office, court commissioners and probation officers. Criminal justice officials started compiling the statistics after the Domestic Violence Coordinating Committee's first meeting last October. The meeting also resulted in the hiring of a new prosecutor for the city state's attorney's domestic violence unit. But the report says much more needs to be done.

While praising the participation of the mayor's office, Police Department and state's attorney's office, the women were still troubled by the criminal justice system's reaction to the statistics. Ms. Alexander said the system has not mobilized to fight domestic violence in the same way it has against illegal drugs.

And Ms. Jackson, who has helped to train many of the judges and police officers who work with domestic violence cases, said some of them simply cannot overcome ingrained biases about such cases.

Sam Ringgold, a spokesman for the Police Department, said the problem is "an issue of resources."

"We don't have enough officers to put on the street, or create specialized units," he said.

Asked what could be done in Baltimore, the women cited San Diego's experience. In that city of 1.2 million, the police department created a unit of 20 detectives to work exclusively on domestic violence cases. Murders stemming from domestic violence are down -- from 22 in 1991 to eight in 1992 -- and officers make arrests in one-third of all cases.

"Police officers will find any excuse they can not to pay attention to this because most of them don't get beat up, it's the women who are getting beat up," said Sgt. Anne O'Dell, one of three sergeants who oversees the unit in San Diego. "Now, if we show up and she's got a scratch, we're taking him to jail."

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