A grain of assault

An integrated approach combining technology, stronger laws and a full-bore effort by police agencies was taken last year in the aftermath of a number of violent incidents involving victims of domestic violence  many of whom were the wives and girlfriends of police officers.

Across the county, victims of domestic abuse were outfitted with cellular phones and silent alarms to summon help when threatened by an abusive partner. In Sangamon County, Ill., pendant alarms that summon police were given out free in June to victims who have been stalked, threatened, or who have taken out orders of protection.

The alarm, which is activated with the squeeze of a hand, gives responding officers instant access via their car’s mobile data terminal to all available information about prior calls from the victim, including the victim’s name, the identity of the suspected batterer, the address, whether there are any firearms in the home, and whether children may be present.

Instead of giving victims in Hamilton County, Ohio, a pendant, it’s the batterers who are now wearing anti-crime “jewelry”: electronic ankle bracelets that send out a warning signal should an abuser come within several hundred feet of a victim’s home. Twenty monitoring devices were purchased through a grant from the state’s Community Correction Act, one of several new laws nationwide to focus on domestic violence.

In Indiana, an alarm is sounded at a monitoring station when the batterer gets close, and officials at the station then contact the appropriate police agency. A microphone inside the woman’s house is also activated, producing a recording that could be helpful in subsequent prosecutions.

A national 24-hour hot line based in Austin, Texas, began in February to serve the estimated 6 million women who are victims of domestic violence each year, providing information in both English and Spanish.

Some of those calls may be coming from cellular phones being handed out to victims in Derry, N.H., and in Montgomery County, Md., among other places. In New Hampshire, the Domestic Violence Coordination Council began handing out the phones in October to women who are being stalked or who have obtained restraining orders. Twenty-five phones were donated in May by Bell Atlantic NYNEX Mobile for a test program in Montgomery County. Another pilot programs in the county involves a “panic-alarm” pendant provided by ADT Security.

The 1994 Violence Against Women Act, a Federal law that makes gender-based crimes a civil rights violation, was invoked in several cases last year. In January, a 63-year-old former airline pilot, Wayne Hayes, was prosecuted in a Federal court in Ohio for stalking his ex-wife across state lines in New Jersey.

The first civil case under the law was brought in February by an 18-year-old college student who claimed she was raped by two student athletes at Virginia Tech in 1994. Christy Brzonkala is suing the school and her alleged attackers for $8.3 million, and seeks to bar the school from handling sexual assaults through its internal judicial process.

A Federal judge in Connecticut upheld the law’s constitutionality in June in a case brought by a woman who had been beaten and terrorized by her husband. The expanded protection that the law offers women, said Judge Janet Bond Arterton, was appropriate because the House of Representatives “found that both existing state and Federal criminal laws were inadequate to protect against gender-based violence.”

A popular anti-stalking bill sponsored by Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Texas Republican, eventually passed, although its future looked shaky for a while after Senator Frank Lautenberg (D.-N.J.) tacked on an amendment that would prohibit those convicted of domestic violence from owning a firearm. The legislation makes it a Federal felony for a stalker to cross state lines to intimidate or threaten a victim in violation of a protective order. Opponents of the Lautenberg amendment  including, as it turned out, the National Fraternal of Police  argued that felons are already prohibited from possessing a firearm, but Lautenberg countered that many domestic violence cases are plea-bargained down to misdemeanors.

Among actions at the state and local levels, New York Gov. George Pataki signed a law in May that would require judges to take domestic violence concerns into account in deciding child-custody cases. Texas Gov. George W. Bush, meanwhile, said that he will make rewriting the state’s anti-stalking law a priority when the Legislature convenes in January. The law was struck down in September for being too vague.

The Detroit Police Department and the Metropolitan Police in Washington, D.C., both initiated programs to crack down on domestic violence. In Detroit, a 50-member task force was charged with investigating every case reported to police and trying to reduce homicides by preventing repeat attacks. The program will also reach out to fellow officers who might be having problems at home.

In Washington, special units of police officers, prosecutors, counselors and judges will be created. The department’s action was spurred by the March 1 conviction of a former Police Officer of the Year for beating his girlfriend.

Among other domestic violence incidents involving police that fueled a steady litany of headlines:

New Jersey State Trooper Andrew Seals, 27, shot and killed his wife, Kris Taylor Seals, on July 8 and then took his own life.

A 24-year-old Boston police officer, John Melson, was arrested in June for climbing the balcony of a former girlfriend, kidnapping her, and stabbing her boyfriend.

McMechan, W.Va., Police Chief Robert Green was fired in September after a spouse-abuse incident.

Stonington, Conn., Police Chief Patrick Hedge, 60, was put on paid leave in May after being charged with harassing his estranged wife.


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Published in Law Enforcement News
Dec. 31, 1996.
© 1996, LEN Inc.  [ Subscribe.]