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Prosecution of Domestic Violence to Be Scrutinized : Crime: Women's advisory panel persuades council to investigate if city office is lax in dealing with such cases.

July 08, 1993|ROXANA KOPETMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONG BEACH — At the request of a women's advisory committee, the City Council agreed this week to determine whether the Long Beach prosecutor's office aggressively pursues domestic violence cases.

The council agreed Tuesday to have its three-member Public Safety Committee look into the city's prosecution of domestic violence. The city prosecutor's office, which brought charges in 809 cases of misdemeanor domestic violence last year, is responsible for handling cases in which spouses are attacked but not seriously injured. More serious cases are prosecuted by the Los Angeles County district attorney's office.

The Women's Advisory Committee to Chief William C. Ellis, which earlier examined the Police Department's record of pursuing crimes against women, questioned whether Prosecutor John Vander Lans is lax in prosecuting the crimes because he has assigned only one deputy to handle the workload.

"We want the council to publicly state that the prosecution of crimes against women is a priority in this city. And if it isn't, we need to change that," committee member Gerrie Schipske said after the council meeting.

Councilman Alan Lowenthal, who raised the issue with his colleagues, said the council is moving in that direction by agreeing to examine the complaints.

"A clear message was sent to the prosecutor: There is a concern about the lack of attention paid to domestic violence," Lowenthal said. "I would hope that we make a clear policy statement that we, as a council, want this prosecuted."

Committee members complained that during a brief but acrimonious meeting with Vander Lans recently, he ignored their questions, resisted their suggestions and stormed out of the room. In a letter to the City Council, committee members said Vander Lans was "condescending, patronizing and offensive."

The 18-member committee, which advises the police chief on crime issues relating to women, includes representatives from social service agencies and the National Organization for Women.

Vander Lans, the city's elected prosecutor for 15 years, concedes that he lost his temper and walked out of the June 18 committee meeting.

"I took it that they were trying to tell me how to run my office," Vander Lans said. "I didn't handle it very well. What I should have said was, 'You're trying to get into my personnel matters.' (But) I lost it and left."

However, he disputed the women's assessment that he treats crimes against women lightly or that he was condescending to the committee.

"I take offense, and my deputies take great offense, that they don't believe (city prosecutors) take domestic violence seriously," Vander Lans said.

Last year, for example, he appointed deputy prosecutor Lynda Vitale to head a domestic violence unit in his office, Vander Lans said. Among a staff of 14 deputy prosecutors, Vitale is one of only three attorneys assigned to a specific issue, Vander Lans said.

Overall, the prosecutor's office filed charges in about 25,000 cases last year.

When Vitale is ill or on vacation, other attorneys work on the domestic violence cases, Vander Lans said.

Vitale, however, said she could use some help. Last year, the city prosecuted 809 cases of misdemeanor spousal battery, she said.

"It's an important issue. We need more resources," she said.

Although it has been slow, "progress is being made" not only in prosecutions but attitudes among some of the male prosecutors, Vitale said.

She said that when she joined the department in 1990, some of her male colleagues would ask about victims of domestic violence: "What did the bitches do to deserve this?"

"It used to be said out loud," Vitale said, "but things have improved."

Vander Lans would not comment on Vitale's remarks or some committee members' concerns about his attitude toward women.

But, he said, Vitale "isn't overburdened" and has no greater workload than her colleagues.

By comparison, it is not unusual for a prosecutor in the district attorney's office to handle 2,000 cases, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Lydia C. Bodin, who handles domestic violence cases for that office.

"If the public really understood how many cases the average attorney handled, they'd be boggled," Bodin said.

Vander Lans and his deputy prosecutors file all misdemeanor cases in Long Beach, ranging from parking tickets to burglaries to manslaughter. Unlike felonies, which carry more severe penalties, misdemeanors are punishable by a maximum of one year in jail for each charge.

In most misdemeanor domestic violence cases in Long Beach, the batterers plead guilty, receiving penalties from probation to jail time, Vitale said. Between 6% and 10% of the cases are dismissed, usually because the victim did not show up in court or decided not to cooperate, often because she was intimidated by the man who attacked her, Vitale said.

Only a small number of cases go to trial. During the first six months of this year, for example, Vitale filed 348 domestic violence cases, and 10 of them went to a jury.

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