Domestic violence arrests in Orange County leaped 431% over the last decade--the biggest jump among California's major counties--and now account for more than half of all felony assault cases handled by police, according to a review of state records.
The surge marks a dramatic turnaround for law enforcement agencies once accused of ignoring the problem. It also has led to an even larger increase in prosecutions. In 1989, the Orange County district attorney's office filed four felony domestic assault charges. Last year, it filed 2,316.
Propelling the change are increased public awareness about domestic violence, tougher laws and better training for police officers who once dismissed fights between couples as a "family matter."
Today, authorities make more arrests for domestic assaults than for homicides, rapes, robberies and kidnappings combined, a Times analysis of California Justice Department statistics found.
In the process, police and prosecutors have struggled to understand the complexities of domestic disputes, which often involve fierce family loyalties and victims unwilling to confront their attackers.
Experts said the numbers do not indicate whether incidents have increased, although the analysis shows that 911 calls reporting domestic assaults fell about 20% statewide over the last five years.
Yet despite the rise in arrests, those who work with domestic abuse victims said authorities still have improvements to make. Some argue that police departments need to pair their get-tough approach with more counseling for both abusers and victims. Others remain concerned that Orange County's felony arrest rates continue to lag behind those of many other counties.
Of the state's 15 most populous counties, Orange County ranked last in domestic violence arrest rates a decade ago when compared to total 911 calls about domestic abuse, according to crime figures. Now the county ranks ninth--behind neighboring Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Riverside counties.
"I do believe that the victims are being treated better, that the officers are treating domestic violence more seriously," said Shirley Gellatly of Human Options, an Orange County-based organization that offers shelter and counseling to battered women. "We were very far down (in the 1980's), and I think that we've made some great strides, but I don't think we're terrific yet."
The current crackdown has its roots in state laws passed in the mid-1980s requiring that police treat all forms of domestic violence as criminal and that beaters be arrested.
At the time, domestic violence arrests were far more frequent, with police often breaking up fights but not taking the batterer into custody unless the victim sustained major injuries.
When police did make arrests, the suspect often faced misdemeanor charges that brought relatively light punishment compared to other violent crimes.
Now, the law states that anyone who inflicts injury on a partner during a domestic dispute can be charged with a felony, which carries a sentence of up to four years in prison.
The legislation also mandated regular training for officers on how to deal with domestic violence calls, which present some of the most difficult and dangerous situations for police.
By the 1990s, police and prosecutors were treating domestic abuse more like other violent crimes, even when cases were difficult to prove. Caught in a tangle of dependency, guilt and love, victims are often unwilling to testify against their attacker and sometimes retract earlier statements made to police.
Authorities, however, began pressing ahead with cases even when victims and witnesses refused to cooperate.
Los Angeles police and prosecutors are currently pursuing misdemeanor charges against football legend Jim Brown, who is on trial for allegedly making terrorist threats against his wife, despite her testimony that she lied to officers when she told them he had assaulted her. Prosecutors and police in Orange County follow similar guidelines.
"We don't (make arrests) to slap their hand or to make a point. If we arrest someone, we fully intend to prosecute them," said Anaheim police Sgt. Bob Conklin, who supervises his department's sexual assault and family crimes detail. Anaheim's arrest numbers rose from 35 in 1988 to 600 last year.
"The biggest problem is the fact that the victims keep placing themselves back in the bad situation, so we keep responding. . . over and over again," Conklin said.
In an attempt to break this "cycle of violence," police departments are joining forces with counselors and representatives from shelters for battered women. Fullerton police enlist a specialist who arrives with police to the scene of some domestic violence calls, while Westminster police urge victims to seek counseling and alternative shelter.