Domestic Violence Cases Gain Prominence on Police Blotters

Article excerpt

EDWARD McLaughlin, chief inspector of the Philadelphia Police Department, remembers how his father used to beat him and his mother. His father broke his arm, McLaughlin says, and burned him with cigarettes.

But Chief McLaughlin didn't become a cop to fight domestic violence. In fact, he says, he had been an officer for 20 years before he understood the role police could play in combatting abuse of women and children.

"It wasn't until I got whacked over the head, figuratively, by women's groups that I realized the importance of the problem and the need for police involvement," says McLaughlin.

That was 10 years ago. Since then Pennsylvania has passed a law calling for mandatory arrest in cases where police find "probable cause" to believe someone has committed domestic violence. The Philadelphia Police Department has done its part by establishing domestic-violence response teams which respond to 911 calls, work with women's groups and shelters, and help victims through the court system.

Long before the O.J. Simpson murder case called attention to domestic violence, some police departments around the country were already focusing on the problem. Recently, however, support for improving response has gained momentum. This year, 39 states have passed laws on domestic violence.

In San Diego, homicides related to domestic violence dropped from an average of 20 per year in 1990 and 1991 to 10 or less annually between 1992 and 1994. In Nashville, Tenn., a city of about 1 million people, there have been six domestic murders this year, compared with 15 for all of last year, and about 24 per year between 1990 and 1993.

But these are cities that have gone after the problem. "The nation as a whole is a patchwork; some departments get it and some don't," says Sergeant Mark Wynn of the Nashville Police Department, who trains police departments around the country and internationally on domestic-violence response.

"Efforts are starting to bring more and more police departments in line," says Sergeant Wynn, who appeared at the White House last week in a ceremony marking October as Domestic Violence Month. "It's a matter of changing the attitudes of traditional law enforcement. We've been burying too many women in this country."

Since the mid-1980s, legal changes have given police officers in some states the tools they need to treat domestic violence seriously. …