Sunday, June 13, 2010

Report questions tough arrest protocol in Marin domestic cases

Gary Klien
Posted: 06/13/2010 05:57:36 PM PDT

Marin police agencies should reconsider their inflexible "pro-arrest" protocol in domestic violence cases because it discourages victims from coming forward and "may drive the crime further underground," the Marin County Civil Grand Jury said.

The aggressive policy also causes unintended consequences for the abused and other family members when a household breadwinner is incarcerated or even deported, the grand jury said.

"The protocol makes no distinction between minor, first-time infractions and incidents of egregious battery," the jury said.

The grand jury, a 19-member citizens' watchdog group empowered by the local judiciary, reported the findings in its latest report, "Domestic Violence: Marin's Number One Violent Crime." The grand jury said its interest was sparked by a July 2009 article in the Marin Independent Journal following two domestic violence-related homicides in Sausalito and Novato.

The jury, citing information from the district attorney's office, said "violent family felonies" constitute nearly a third of violent felonies in Marin. In 2009, prosecutors handled 815 domestic violence reports and filed charges in 369 cases.

But because an estimated 75 percent of domestic assaults go unreported, the actual number of incidents could top 3,200 a year in Marin, the grand jury noted.

The watchdog group learned that Marin law enforcement takes a "pro-arrest" approach to domestic violence that some officers interpret as a mandatory arrest policy.

While California law "encourages" an arrest in domestic violence cases, the county has a tougher protocol that tells police to identify the dominant aggressor and make an arrest. The county protocol also discourages dual arrests, putting additional pressure on police to sort through confusing events and pin the primary blame on one combatant.

"A court official related an incident in which an arrest was made after one frustrated party with no prior arrests threw a wet sponge at his partner," the report said.

The grand jury recommends that local police be given the discretion, depending on the circumstances, to give a suspect a misdemeanor citation instead of a jail booking. The citation still requires the suspect to appear in court, and prosecutors can file whatever charges they deem appropriate.

"Issuance of citations, in some exceptional cases, would minimize the impact of arrest on victims and families, while at the same time promoting early intervention and education in an effort to stop the cycle of abusive behavior before it escalates," the jury said.

The grand jury's report also recommends increased domestic violence training for officers and involvement by command staff; funding by the Board of Supervisors for a countywide prevention campaign; and the designation of a domestic violence specialist at the county's three largest law enforcement agencies, the sheriff's department and the San Rafael and Novato police departments.

Formal responses to the report are due in the next 60 to 90 days by the Board of Supervisors, the district attorney's office, the sheriff's department and the city councils of San Rafael and Novato.

The watchdog group also invited responses from the county's police chiefs, public defender and chief probation officer, as well as the Marin Domestic Violence Coordinating Council and Marin Abused Women's Services, or MAWS.

Donna Garske, executive director of MAWS, said the nonprofit was still studying the report Friday and would respond to the grand jury.

"Marin Abused Women's Services applauds the grand jury's effort to study the problem of domestic violence in Marin, review the solutions under way and identify areas for improvement," she said.

"This issue affects all of us to some degree and the impact on children cannot be underestimated," said Deputy District Attorney Charles Cacciatore, a domestic violence specialist. "It is important to raise awareness around this violent yet ultimately preventable crime."Ê

Contact Gary Klien via e-mail at

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