Coordinated Community Responses to Domestic Violence in Six Communities: Beyond the Justice System. History and Development


The coordinated effort in the city of Baltimore began in the early 1980's when Kurt Schmoke, the current mayor, was running for State's Attorney. After speaking with an attorney at the House of Ruth, he made domestic violence part of his campaign platform, and once elected, he established a domestic violence unit within the State's Attorney Office for misdemeanor domestic violence cases. He hired the House of Ruth attorney as the first head of the new unit. Mr. Schmoke also helped initiate a domestic violence task force in 1984 under the auspices of the Mayor's Coordinating Committee on Criminal Justice. The task force included representatives from criminal justice agencies and the courts, the media, social service providers, health providers, and private citizens. The goal of the task force was to examine domestic violence issues in Baltimore and make recommendations to: improve the criminal justice response; direct and support services to victims and perpetrators; and increase community awareness. After one year of meetings, guest speakers, and a public hearing, the domestic violence task force produced a report with general and specific recommendations in the areas of criminal justice, direct service, community education, and legislation.

To fulfill the general recommendation of the task force, the Mayor's Coordinating Council on Criminal Justice instituted a Domestic Violence Coordinating Committee (DVCC) to implement the specific recommendations in the report. Unlike the initial task force which was broader in scope, the DVCC focused primarily on criminal justice issues. Members attributed this shift in focus to the commitment among criminal justice agencies to improving the response as well as to the belief that the DVCC would be more successful if it worked on one area at a time. Members also felt they were able to discuss criminal justice matters more freely because the membership was limited. As one person noted, the criminal justice response is as "strong as its weakest link," therefore appropriate policies and the commitment of all the agencies are needed. In 1989, the DVCC fulfilled another task force recommendation by working with the various criminal justice agencies and the courts to produce a Policies and Procedures Manual on domestic violence. This comprehensive manual outlined domestic violence policies for the police, court commissioners, pretrial release services, the State's Attorney's Office, clerks, judges, domestic and juvenile masters, and parole and probation officers. The manual also included background information about domestic violence and the House of Ruth.

Just prior to receiving the federal VAW grant in 1995, the DVCC sponsored a Domestic Violence Summit which was attended by DVCC members and other top community officials. This summit produced a strategic plan and mission statement for the DVCC, and brought the issue of domestic violence to the attention of a number of high ranking criminal justice officials. As a result, many agencies became more receptive to the idea of specialized units or designated personnel. Several people felt that the summit was an important factor in the decision by the police, pretrial release services, and parole and probation to create specialized units. The VAW grant reinforced the commitment to developing specialized units.

The first specialized unit in Baltimore was established in the State's Attorney's Office many years before the Domestic Violence Summit. Over time the unit has grown to include 3 staff attorneys and 2 legal assistants. The domestic violence unit is housed in one of the city's several courthouses and handles only the cases from police districts in that court's jurisdiction. Although the domestic violence unit's jurisdiction has changed over time, the unit has never handled all domestic violence cases for the entire city. There are currently plans for a special citywide domestic violence docket in District Court and the domestic violence unit would prosecute all cases assigned to the new docket.

Cases prosecuted by the unit are handled somewhat differently than other cases. Unlike other prosecutors who are in court every other day, prosecutors in the domestic violence unit are only in court 4 out of 10 days, thereby allowing more time to prepare cases. The staff also try to speak with every victim, if only by phone, prior to the first trial date. The unit has a pro- prosecution policy and will prosecute a case if there is sufficient evidence, even if the witness will not cooperate. While the unit will subpoena a reluctant victim, they do not issue warrants for the victims arrest if she does not testify. As one person indicated, they prepare these misdemeanor domestic violence cases as thoroughly as if they were prosecuting a jury trial. Because this unit was the first specialized domestic violence unit in the city, it has a long history of training and consulting with other agencies about domestic violence issues and assisting victims with systems advocacy.

The Baltimore Police Department's response has changed in recent years through new policies and designated staff. In 1993, the department instituted a policy to code all 911 calls for family and domestic violence and to require the responding officer to write a report for all domestic violence calls. Since 1994 the state of Maryland has required police to give domestic violence victims a card describing their legal rights and identifying local service providers. Baltimore, however, had followed this practice for many years previously. Currently, police are considering adopting a mandatory arrest policy for domestic violence. This would expand their current policy of preferred arrest, whereby the officer arrests the perpetrator if there is probable cause.

Designating police officers for domestic violence began several years ago when a commanding officer began an unofficial domestic violence unit in one district. The Domestic Violence Summit, the VAW grant, and a new Police Commissioner all contributed to the department's recent decision to designate domestic violence officers in all nine police districts. The designated officers follow-up with domestic violence victims by mail or in person in a way that does not compromise the victim's safety. The districts vary in the number of designated staff, the level of services, and their experience with domestic violence. However, the officers are intended to be easily-identified contacts for domestic violence and therefore to serve as "consultants" to fellow police officers and the community.

Pretrial Release Services started a specialized unit in 1994. The deputy director pushed for this change because he felt that perpetrators of domestic violence need the highest level of supervision during the pretrial release period, when there is risk of further abuse. Two case managers handle domestic violence cases and maintain a smaller caseload to enable them to supervise the cases more intensively. The case managers closely monitor the perpetrator's participation in batterer intervention or addiction treatment programs, and keep in contact with the victim via mail or telephone calls. One person noted that the increased contact with persons involved in the case provides Pre-Trial Release Services with more information to make better recommendations at trial. Staff feel they have the most effect on first time arrestees, and thus far, no person has been rearrested while under the supervision of the domestic violence unit.

Staff in the Baltimore City Division of Parole and Probation considered a specialized unit several years ago, but state officials were not favorable to the idea until after the Domestic Violence Summit. At present, there is only one specialized unit, although initially the division hoped to establish two units. The Family Assault Supervision Team (F.A.S.T.) consists of between six and eight agents who provide more intensive supervision for domestic violence cases and have a significantly smaller caseload than other officers. F.A.S.T. agents receive additional training in domestic violence and are familiar with the local batterer intervention programs. As soon as a case is assigned, the F.A.S.T. agent sends a letter to the victim with contact information, details about the probation order, and guidance about what to do to if problems arise. Approximately 90 percent of the unit's caseload is court ordered to batterer intervention programs. The F.A.S.T. unit caseload has a much higher percentage of probationers in violation of their orders than the overall probation population, and the agents attribute this to two factors. First, victims will frequently contact the agent about violations by probationers, so the agents have more information about the case. Also, since the agents know the potential victim in advance of a further instance of abuse, they feel compelled to report violations of probation more quickly than they might otherwise.

The DVCC has played an important role in facilitating communication between the various law enforcement agencies and special units. The regular monthly meeting ensures that the special units receive the latest information about coordination efforts and domestic violence funding. The meetings also provide information about policy or procedural changes in the criminal justice agencies, such as the changes in arrest procedures with the development of the new Central Booking Facility.

The DVCC membership has been fairly consistent over time, giving the group a "small town" feel according to one member. Many of the representatives have served on the committee since its inception. In addition to their DVCC involvement, members interact regularly on other criminal justice matters. A number of members said that they participated in the DVCC because they wanted to and because they are committed to improving services. The active involvement of the judiciary has also been an important feature of the DVCC. Judge Rinehardt, the administrative judge for Baltimore City District Courts, co-chairs the DVCC and has been active for several years. The DVCC's efforts are also reinforced by the Mayor's continued support.

The DVCC has begun to play a larger role in training criminal justice agencies. For many years, the House of Ruth has been the primary provider of domestic violence training in Baltimore. However, the VAW grant allowed the DVCC to begin to provide training as well. For example, the DVCC coordinator did a large scale training for police officers before the designated personnel were assigned and has worked with other agencies including court commissioners. As part of the VAW grant, the DVCC will sponsor a training on stalking issues for police district commanders and members of the DVCC workgroup. In addition, the current DVCC manual contains a training curriculum.

DVCC members are very excited about the proposed Domestic Violence Court for criminal domestic violence matters, which is being planned under the latest VAW grant. An ad hoc committee is currently working out screening issues and other logistical matters for the new court. Under current plans, the Baltimore District Courts will provide a judge and the courtroom for this docket. Centralizing the prosecution of domestic violence cases may prove useful in many ways. As one committee member stated, the court should have an "evenhanded" approach to these cases, and the consolidated docket would help to accomplish that end. The State's Attorney's Domestic Violence Unit would also be able to prosecute cases from throughout the city, rather than from a limited number of the districts. While the screening issues have not been finalized, the court will most likely handle the serious misdemeanor cases. A couple of agencies have applied for funding to help cover their costs associated with the specialized docket. The city has already gained some experience with a consolidated docket through the Civil District Court's docket for protection order hearings.

At present, the DVCC is perhaps at its most productive stage thus far. The VAW grant enabled the DVCC to hire a part-time coordinator and gave the committee the authority to allocate funds. In addition, the grant provided an impetus for agencies to set specific goals and a timetable for completing them. As one member stated, the grant "upped the stock value" of the Committee. However, Baltimore will not receive additional grant funding in 1997 and, as a result, is likely to eliminate the coordinator position for the DVCC. While people agreed that the DVCC would continue without the funding, many felt that with the loss of the coordinator the level of activity will drop, particularly efforts aimed at improving data collection and linking criminal justice databases..