New domestic violence unit
Today's Crime Scenes is about a new Family Crimes Unit to handle the more than 25,000 domestic violence calls Baltimore police get each year. I spent some time with the members of the unit, led by Baltimore Police Lt. Vernell Shaheed, DeVera Gilden and Assistant State's Attorney Julie Drake. They work out a makeshift office and there are so many reports there's no room to file them (photo at left).
What they've essentially done is model a domestic violence divison, with detectives and social workers, after the homicide unit. In serious cases, they respond and handle the investigation, rather than leaving it with patrol officers. As a result, they say domestic killings have dropped from 13 or 14 in years past to four thus far this year.
It turns old ideas on its head. In years past, police commanders would dismiss domestic killings as unpreventable crimes. It happened inside, was "just a domestic" and thus people don't need to worry. Julie Drake sees it another way -- intervene in troubled households early and prevent the situation from becoming a homicide.
Officers are supposed to call the unit when they're on the scene of a serious domestic dispute, but Shaheed told me they're still trying to get the word out to beat cops to make the proper notifications. It's a new program so it takes some time to work out the kinks. In some districts, she said, officers call her unit on every singe case.
They also review every domestic violence report, even ones involving no phyicial violence, to see if they need to intervene. Three calls to the same address gets their attention, Shaheed said, and will get them involved. That shows a pattern that could later erupt into violence.
One of this year's few killings involved an address in Southwest Baltimore in which police had responded repeatedly for calls for help, but somehow the new Family Crimes Unit wasn't notified in time. That case is under internal review.
And earlier this year, a deputy police commander in the Eastern District was suspended, then cleared and reinstated, after it was learned he had exchanged text messages with a man wanted on a domestic violence warrant. Before the warrant was served, the man shot and killed his wife on outside a courthouse on North Avenue and was then shot and wounded by a city police officer.
The incident raised concerns as to how diligently police worked to serve the warrant -- the suspect was a well-known community activist -- and why police in the Eastern District had bypassed the new domestic violence unit while handling the case.
This new program appears to be working but clearly the word needs to get out that these cases are being treated more seriously then ever before. I was pleasantly surprised to see Officer Kate Wood in the new office. I had covered the tragic case of her daughter back in 1997 who was shot and killed by her boyfriend.
Two days before the fatal shooting, the daughter had called 911 when the boyfriend showed up at her house with a gun. The daughter had a temporary protective order but at the time that order didn't allow police to seize the weapon. They ordered the boyfriend to leave but let him keep the gun. Two days later, he fatally shot her with that very gun, prompting Wood to work hard to tighten the law, which was finally done only this year.