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Domestic violence climbs throughout region

Police crime scene
Crime scene tape (ThinkStock photo)

Domestic violence is soaring in Northern Virginia as a weak economy takes its toll on families and new laws push police to do more to combat the area's growing trend.

Arrests have climbed as much as 277 percent from six years ago, according to new statistics from the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services. Domestic violence arrests in Fairfax County jumped from 489 in 2006 to 1,984 in 2010, according to the report, which detailed incidents reported by law enforcement from 2006 to 2010. In Alexandria, the number about doubled from 158 to 323 during that five-year period.

The numbers also have been climbing in the District, according to local shelter officials who report an increase in the number of victims they have served. D.C. police did not provide statistics.

By the numbers
  2006 2007 2008 2009 2010
Arlington 332 256 262 276 296
Alexandria 158 290 357 328 323
Fairfax County 489 888 745 1,196 1,984
Fairfax City 11 13 45 40 35
  2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011
Anne Arundel County 1,188 1,276 1,354 1,445 1,394 1,484
Baltimore City 4,418 3,437 3,970 3,827 3,932 4,161
Howard County 546 755 816 808 810 856
Montgomery County 1,559 1,431 1,359 1,349 975 1,054
Prince George's County 2,682 1,260 1,093 1,073 937 908

In many Maryland counties, the numbers plunged between 2006 and 2007, which police and officials attribute to an increase in education and a new reporting method that helps police assess the long-term risks of victims. But since then, arrests have inched up across the state.

"Whether it's a disconnect with authorities, or domestic violence's strong relationship with the economy -- fights about money, fights about unemployment -- we're seeing it occur as much as ever," said Angela Hattery, associate director of George Mason University's Women and Gender Studies program.

Many domestic violence cases often occur between unmarried couples, such as a 2011 case in which Dominique Bassil allegedly stabbed her 28-year-old boyfriend to death after accusing him of not paying enough attention to her at a wedding reception.

Just two years prior, 20-year-old Bernard Bellamy was charged with first-degree murder after reportedly driving over his District Heights girlfriend after learning she was pregnant. The case prompted many shelters to bolster their programs and outreach efforts.

Lawmakers also are seeking ways to protect families. In

Fairfax County, officials attribute the increase in domestic violence reports to a 2005 county program that placed one detective in each of the county's eight district police stations to work solely with victims of domestic violence.

But as reports soared in Northern Virginia, they plummeted -- and then rose -- in many Maryland counties.

In Baltimore, the 4,418 cases in 2006 plunged to 3,437 in 2007. But since then, the numbers have steadily climbed, to 4,161 last year. Less-populated counties such as Allegany, Carroll and Kent also have seen increases over the last six years.

Montgomery County recorded an increase last year after several years of drops, and Howard and Anne Arundel counties have seen consistent increases, while the number of arrests in Prince George's County has steadily dropped.

Maryland Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown credited increased legislation and domestic violence prevention programs for the decreases.

Brown said the implementation of the Lethality Assessment Program has been a "game changer." The program requires officers who think an individual is in danger to assess the victim's level of risk.

But some domestic violence experts find it tough to link a decrease in arrests to an increase in education.

Hattery said more education about domestic violence generally leads to more reporting.

"Domestic violence reports are shaped by the actions of local law enforcement officers," Hattery said. "So in Maryland, you could be seeing that officers are not being particularly helpful or responsive, or that they're focusing much of their efforts on decreasing different kinds of crime. Word will spread, and people will stop reporting."

Almost all Maryland shelters are reporting an increase in clients.

Staff at Walden Sierra Inc., a nonprofit counseling and treatment center in Southern Maryland, say the number of residents seeking immediate shelter has been increasing.

"We've probably spent more funds on sheltering than we have in some time," said Laura Webb, the organization's resource engagement coordinator. "With the economy as it is, people sometimes feel that they can't ask their families and friends for help, so they really rely on programs like ours."