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San Diego Emerges as Model in Handling Spouse Abuse Cases


The Orange County district attorney's office need look only toward its neighbor to the south for what is hailed as a model for handling spousal abuse cases.

In San Diego County, 20 full-time prosecutors--11 deputies in the district attorney's office and nine in the city attorney's office--are devoted exclusively to domestic violence. The resources used to battle the problem of spousal abuse are unrivaled.

By comparison, Orange County has two full-time prosecutors, and the part-time services of another 10 who handle a heavy load of other criminal cases.

"We are considered the model, which is encouraging, but it is also discouraging because I know how far we have to go," said Casey G. Gwinn, head deputy city attorney and supervising attorney of the domestic violence unit.

Those in the city attorney's office handle both misdemeanor cases and felonies that started as misdemeanors. The district attorney's office handles felony cases countywide and all misdemeanors outside the city of San Diego.

Gwinn said that although he is pleased with the county's overall felony filing rate--the highest of the six most-populous counties--and its high rate of convictions for both felonies and misdemeanors, he is much more proud of the decrease in homicides related to domestic violence.

In 1985, the county had 30 such homicides. The number lowered to 22 in 1991 and decreased to nine in both 1992 and 1993. So far this year, there have been two.

"This is what distinguishes us from the rest of the country," Gwinn said. "We review every death resulting from a domestic dispute and try and figure out how it could have (been) handled differently."

The policies employed by the domestic violence units in San Diego County are heralded nationwide as among the most aggressive and effective because they don't require the victim to sign a formal complaint and do not allow the victim to drop charges or press charges once the case is submitted to the unit by a law enforcement agency.

In fact, local police stopped asking victims whether they wanted to press charges back in 1986. That decision is left to prosecutors, who don't even need the victim's cooperation to move forward with the case.

Victims do not testify in about 60% of San Diego's cases, Gwinn said, and when they do, they often do so on behalf of the defense, not the prosecution. Prosecutors usually rely on neighbors, children, photographs, police reports, 911 emergency tapes and other evidence to prove their cases, he said.

Much of the success of the San Diego model, observers say, comes from its Domestic Violence Council, which consists of a 16-member executive committee that includes prosecutors, judges, probation officials, police and sheriff's administrators, and members of victims advocate programs.

Cathy Stephenson, the deputy district attorney in charge of the family protection division, said San Diego County's attack on domestic abuse works because everyone, from cops to judges to counselors, is devoted toward the same goal.

"One of the things that makes San Diego County unique is that everyone works together," she said. "I go to a lot of counties and people say, 'You talk to each other?' "

Sgt. Anne O'Dell is one of three sergeants and 24 sworn officers from the San Diego Police Department devoted solely to handling crimes of domestic violence.

"It's really a mind-set in San Diego County," she said. "It's not a panacea, but we have enough people here working on this problem to make a hell of a difference."

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