Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler on Wednesday announced a major overhaul to Harford County Sheriff’s Office policies on the handling of domestic violence cases, expansions he said are intended to prevent escalation of domestic altercations into violent incidents.
While the new policies were officially announced this week, deputies have been working under a version of them since March. The overhaul was itself part of a review of all agency policies which began when Gahler took office in December.
The three new policies specify how deputies are to handle domestic incidents generally; how they enforce domestic violence court orders such as peace and protective orders; and how they handle firearms recovered during domestic-related calls.
They are intended to correct earlier guidelines which Gahler said were vague and caused the agency to “underperform” when responding to domestic-related calls for service.
“The Sheriff’s Office wasn’t where it needed to be in terms of domestic violence,” he said.
A key component of the new directives is the requirement that all domestic-related calls for service will result in a written report. That report will be forwarded to the Sheriff’s Office domestic violence unit for further action, in an “attempt to prevent incidents from rising to the level of criminal activity,” Gahler said.
The policies also provide expended and more up-to-date legal definitions of a variety of domestic incident related terms, and remove some deputy discretion in handling such incidents. Importantly, the new guidelines require deputies in many cases to arrest and charge an offender. Previously, deputies provided information for victims to find their own domestic violence attorney and seek charges themselves through a court commissioner—but many did not.
“We know from experience, men and women who are the subjects of domestic violence are not always in a mindset to help themselves.”
The changes are intended to create a standardized approach to domestic situations, “so they’re all going to be handled the same and we have some accountability,” said Major William Davis, commander of the agency’s police operations bureau.
Of the three homicides in Harford County this year, two were domestic-related, Gahler said. In some cases, a domestic dispute that is not properly addressed eventually escalates into a domestic assault, which in turn can result in a domestic homicide.
Following his election last fall, Gahler said he and his command staff identified the Sheriff’s Office domestic violence policies as an area of concern. In March, Davis issued initial instructions to all deputies regarding domestic violence incidents, which formed the core of the written policies unveiled this week.
Gahler said “at least 30” version of the policies were “vetted and revetted” through the spring, resulting in the final versions he signed in late May and early June.
The effect of the new policies was nearly instant, Gahler said, as the number of reports filed regarding domestic incidents jumped 100 percent in the month after Davis issued his instructions. Likewise, Gahler said the number of aggravated assaults reported by the agency under the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting statistics may spike this year. However, he emphasized that the statistical uptick does not reflect an increase in crime, but an increase in pre-existing crime that the Sheriff’s Office is now more accurately tracking and better handling.
That increase will also create additional need for SARC, the local organization which assists victims of domestic abuse. Gahler urged the public to consider supporting SARC’s support and services.
State’s Attorney Joseph Cassilly and his office were consulted during the policy revision process, and are prepared for any potential increase in the number of domestic cases they see, according to Sgt. Paul Ruszala. The new policies will also assist their prosecutorial efforts, as the cases will be built on the work of deputies rather than a charge sought through a court commissioner.
“Their volume has stayed about the same, except now they’re getting an investigation,” he said. “Whereas before, they were getting a citizen complaint through the commissioner.”
Gahler praised the ongoing work of his deputies, saying the change in policy did not reflect a failure on their part, but a need for the Sheriff’s Office as a whole to modernize and improve their instructions to those deputies.
“We are just doing a better job,” he said. “The office was not where it needed to be.”
The new policies in their entirety appear below.