He just lost his temper. I don’t want him to go to jail. I don’t want to lose my children. We don’t have any other way to support ourselves.
The excuses for domestic violence are many, but the five members of the Harford County Sheriff’s Office Domestic Violence Unit have heard them all, and a few more. But it’s their job to cut through them, to investigate one of Harford County’s most prevalent crimes, and to help its victims find some measure of peace.
Four of the members of the unit spoke to the Harford County Sheriff’s Office Citizens Police Academy Tuesday night, part of an overview of the agency’s court services division.
In the eyes of the judicial system, domestic violence is a second degree assault, a misdemeanor with maximum penalties of 10 years in prison and a fine of $2,500. But to the domestic violence unit, it is more than 700 reports investigated last year, and many more calls for service from frightened family members.
In addition to physical violence, domestic abuse may take the form of psychological intimidation, threats, economic control, isolation of the abused, or destruction of their property, said Sgt. Richard Miller, the unit’s commander. The deputies do not have to be present to arrest an offender on a domestic abuse charge, he said, as long as certain criteria are met after an incident.
An arrest sends a message that domestic violence is a crime, said Corporal Lisa Lane, and gets the abuser into the criminal justice system—but not necessarily to jail. Other options include treatment facilities or counseling.
Usually, however, the goal is to get the abused away from their tormentor. Miller said that, on average, a victim of domestic abuse will try to leave seven times before breaking away for good. And that time is often when the victim is at the greatest risk of physical harm.
And for law enforcement officers, domestic violence calls are among the times they’re most at risk, Lane said. Often the aggressor knows the victim has called the police, and may be lying in wait for officers. Sometimes, upon seeing a uniform and badge, the victim will flip and lash out at the officers in defense of their loved one.
The Sheriff’s Office domestic violence unit is part of the Harford County Family Justice Center, which also includes members of the State’s Attorney’s Office, and the Sexual Abuse/Spouse Resource Center (SARC). The center provides a full array of services to victims of domestic abuse, including criminal investigations and prosecutions, counseling, referrals for emergency shelter and financial assistance, and the obtainment of protective orders.
“Sadly, a lot of people choose not to get help,” Miller said. “They just stop calling, or move to another county. Abusers are not going to change their behavior unless they want to.”
“We will always have a job, and the numbers are going up.”
If you have been the victim of domestic violence, or feel you need help, contact the:
Harford County Sheriff’s Office Domestic Violence Unit, 410-638-3113
The Sexual Assault/Spouse Abuse Resource Center (SARC) 24-hour Helpline, 410-836-8430
Or local law enforcement authorities
Among the information presented by the domestic violence unit, and during a court of the circuit court building presented by Sgt. Paul Cole:
–While protective orders can play a big role in helping victims break free of abuse, unusual situations do occur. Among them are the cases in which an individual begins to reconcile with the person they took out a protective order against. But even when the contact is consensual, in the eyes of the law the person is still considered to be violating the protective order, members of the unit said.
–Among the duties of the court services division is to track false fire alarms in the county. A home or commercial property is allowed three false alarms per year, according to Captain John Bakie, the division’s commander. After that, fines start at $100, and are collected by the county treasury department.
“Some of the businesses, you wouldn’t believe their alarm bill at the end of the year,” Bakie said. “We’ll go out 10 times in a month, and tell them they should get it fixed. They say it costs too much to get it fixed, it’s cheaper to pay the bill. Some people would rather do it the hard way.”
–Each level of the courthouse has a few small holding cells for individuals awaiting a hearing. Small may even be an understatement—the cells are small nooks consisting of a cinderblock bench protruding from the wall, and a toilet. There is also a main holding area in the bowels of the building, served by a separate elevator. Cole said those detained in either the cells or the holding area are kept on constant watch.
–Cole said individuals appearing at the courthouse for a jury trial are not restrained by manacles or other physical means, as doing so may prejudice the jury toward them.
However, he said that security personnel at the court work to keep abreast of which cases will be heard on a given day, and which individuals may appear, to more effectively prepare for any potential problems or threats.
Next Week: An overview of the special investigations division.