Domestic violence arrests in Howard County have more than doubled during the first half of the year, compared with the previous six months -- a spike that coincides with the creation of a three-member domestic violence unit within the Police Department in January.
Arrests rose from 43 in the last half of 2006 to 125 in the first half of 2007, according to police data.
Howard County is the last jurisdiction in the Baltimore region to dedicate officers to domestic violence work. The unit is being paid for with a $400,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice.
All reports of domestic disputes are now being faxed or hand-delivered to two officers, who check for errors, follow up with victims, and train patrol officers on making warrantless arrests and enforcing protective orders. A judge issues a protective order to prevent further family violence. The orders often require abusers to stay away from victims.
Prosecutors said that the unit is helping them build cases based on evidence -- photographs, 911 tapes and witness statements, for instance -- and rely less on "he-said, she-said" accounts. More evidence will help prosecutors win convictions even when victims are unwilling to testify against their abusers, said Devora Pontell, a Howard County assistant prosecutor.
Last year, Pontell had to drop a case involving a woman who was bleeding from her head and alleged that her boyfriend had hit her with a telephone. The boyfriend alleged that she had stumbled and banged her head against the wall.
"The responding officer did not go look to see if there was blood on the wall or blood on the telephone," said Pontell, who specializes in domestic violence cases. "Responding officers have to treat domestics as criminal investigations, as opposed to responding to a call."
Pontell said prosecutors are "thrilled" with the new unit and that their cases are stronger because of the unit's work.
"There is now follow-up where there never was follow-up," she said. "That's a big part of the reason why the numbers are higher."
This year, Detective Molly Gale reviewed a report involving a Columbia man who had punched his wife several times and drove a knife into a wall next to her head.
The responding officer wrote that he did not arrest the man because there were no "visible signs of injury," but the presence of the knife raised red flags for Gale as she reviewed the report, she said.
Gale called the victim, interviewed her at length at a police station and then obtained a warrant to search a townhouse because the woman was afraid to go back.
Detectives documented the hole in the wall and the bruises that had since formed on the side of the victim's face.
Gale charged the man with first- and second-degree assault and reckless endangerment in February. He pleaded guilty to second-degree assault in Howard County District Court in April, and Judge Mary C. Reese suspended a three-year prison sentence and imposed three years of probation, drug and alcohol testing and anger-management classes.
"The goal here is more reporting, more arrests, greater accountability and more successful prosecutions," said Detective Sgt. Steven Martin, who oversees the unit.
Gale and Martin have conducted 30-minute training sessions on protective orders with officers before their shifts start.
During in-service training next year, the unit plans to train officers on gathering more evidence at the scene of domestic calls.
Gale and Martin also have sent departmentwide e-mails clarifying arrest procedures. Officers can arrest someone without a warrant if a crime is reported to police within 48 hours and there is evidence of injury.
David Sargent, a former Washington police officer who trains law enforcement officers for the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence, said officers often incorrectly believe that evidence of an injury must be visible.
"If a man has kicked his wife in the ribs, a male officer might not be in a position to see the injury," Sargent said.
But she may be unable to stand up straight or "the victim's own statements may be credible enough" to make an arrest, he said.
Bruises from a choking incident also may not be visible, but if a victim alleges an attack and is having trouble swallowing or speaking, an arrest can be made, Martin said.
Howard County recently launched a database that will help the unit track repeat offenders.
"Most reports come from a neighbor," said Baltimore County Pfc. Sheila Tome, who works with a domestic violence officer in each of her county's police precincts. "In rural areas, you're not going to receive as many reports because the houses are so far apart that no one's calling."
"Domestic violence does not discriminate based on race, age or wealth," Tome said. "It's across the board, and it's really important to bring that out. It's everywhere, and reporting is what you need."