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Domestic violence surges

(Published July 3, 2000)

By KATE ALEXANDER

Staff Writer

Domestic violence continues to plague the District despite recent declines in overall crime and police efforts to stem the problem, according to recent crime statistics and victims’ advocates.

Reports from the Metropolitan Police Department show that the most violent categories of domestic violence edged up nearly 7 percent since 1998 and overall crime involving domestic violence surged about 30 percent.

Alarming growth was particularly evident in forcible rape and aggravated assault, both of which more than doubled. Between 1998 and 1999, incidents of forcible rape in the context of domestic violence increased from 16 to 58, aggravated assault rose from 539 in 1998 to 1218, and homicide grew from six to 10 during the same period.

Advocates disputed the accuracy of these numbers, lamenting notoriously poor police tracking of domestic violence. A police spokesman noted there is no single crime category for tracking it.

"From working with victims and attorneys around the city, we know that police frequently do not take and submit reports (of domestic disputes)," said Nancy Meyer, executive director of the D.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence. "These numbers seem low compared to what we see at (the Domestic Violence Intake Center) and what one would expect from a city this size."

Intimate violence — which includes murder, rape, sexual assault, robbery, aggravated assault and simple assault committed by a current or former spouse, boyfriend or girlfriend — has been declining nationally since 1993, according to 1998 figures from the Department of Justice, the most recent data available. This drop reflects a similar pattern in the overall rate of violent crime.

Incidences of domestic violence in the District, though, have not followed the national trend.

The Domestic Violence Intake Center at D.C. Superior Court reports assisting 20 to 40 women per day who are seeking civil protection orders, and it has seen a steady increase of clients during the last three years, according to the D.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Similarly, My Sister’s Place — one of two D.C. shelters for battered women and their children — has turned away four times as many women as it can accommodate in the last year, said Suzanne Marcus, co-director of community education.

Meyer noted, however, that it is unclear whether this rise could be traced to an increase in violence or greater awareness of available resources.

Karla Mantilla, also of the D.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence, attributed the steady level of domestic violence in the District to the high rate of poverty, which hovers around 22 percent, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

"Women are able to get out of (these violent relationships) only if they can establish economic independence. It may be that these women lack the economic means to support themselves," Mantilla said.

Marcus said that any statistics about domestic violence are skewed by the different challenges faced by poor women in violent relationships.

"Domestic violence occurs at the same rate across race and class lines, though the figures may not reflect that claim because the women who seek resources are typically poor…because women with money can leave (the relationship) easier," Marcus said.

In the wake of growing violence, police have been looking to alternative strategies to abate the violence.

Domestic violence Investigator Lashon Stover of the city’s Fifth Police District said she has seen a difference since the implementation of new policies mandating arrests and continued prosecutions even if the victim does not want it to continue.

With the institution of these federally recommended policing and prosecution strategies in 1996, domestic violence is now treated aggressively as a crime rather than as a private affair, Stover said.

The mandatory arrest policy dictates that when police officers respond to a domestic violence call, they must arrest the offender if there is evidence of violence, such as bruises, property damage or witnesses. In the past, it was up to the victim whether to press charges.

Whereas in the past, victims could be easily deterred from reporting the domestic violence by threats from the offender, police believe that the policies encourage victims to come forward. The mandatory arrest protocol and the "no-drop" policy move the responsibility to the criminal justice system rather than the victims.

"Perpetrators are being arrested, prosecuted and sentenced aggressively. This has sent the message that domestic violence is a crime and we’re seeing fewer felony assaults as a result," Stover said. "The burden is no longer on the complainant because the U.S. government can prosecute cases without her presence."

Copyright 2000, The Common Denominator