From The Cop Side: Forging Victims’ Rights and Advocacy
Whether a person has been physically violated as an adult or child, sexual assault is one of the most difficult crimes for a victim to disclose. It is emotionally and physically traumatic. Not only is it hard for a victim to talk about sexual matters; the act leaves them often feeling humiliated and sometimes fearful of future retaliation by a suspect. Additionally, they suffer emotional scars from recurring memories of the incident and a loss of personal safety. External factors such as the subject being somewhat taboo to discuss and the societal cloud of judgment leaves them with little outlets for support and guidance.
My police career began in an age when sexual assault cases were investigated, it was customary to call upon female officers to take all adult sexual assault, child abuse, and child sexual assault complaints. In fact, when the calls were aired to the area officer, often a male, it was usually a matter of time before myself or the other female on our shift was asked to respond.
Perhaps it was the old adage of women being better equipped emotionally to handle such incidents while showing empathy and having a natural nurture instinct. Not only is emotional support necessary in these sensitive cases, but they must also be meticulously detailed and all procedural requirements must be met. From the investigating officer standpoint, they are mentally exhausting and time consuming.
Prior to this era, in 1984, The Victims of Crime Act gave victims some power back. Following the act of law, the federal government and all states established a set of victims’ rights giving them access to certain information, support, and serving a role in the judicial process. In many states, laws also provided for victim compensation and restitution from suspects. In the 90’s, our department was mindful of victim rights and how important it was to handle these sensitive cases. However, our system was still lacking elements. Victims were provided with community contact cards from police officers which listed helpful agencies and their phone numbers, but really no concrete direction or assistance given to them by police. Victims’ rights cards were read to them and handed out but meant little without continual support. Community agencies did not work in partnership with law enforcement, but were referral based and the victim had to seek assistance on their own. Once the facts were gathered, rarely was there any follow up. In some cases, we would transport victims to women’s safe shelters after their statements were gathered.
The percentage of sexual assault cases being closed by arrest were very low. Victims at times were refusing to testify and some had severe emotional issues resulting from the criminal acts. The department and prosecution saw a need for change. It was not a localized issue, but nationwide. Victim advocates were asking for modifications in police procedures and the victims felt the judicial process was difficult to endure.
The need for improvement was recognized. A victim advocate team model was developed in the community with leadership from law enforcement agencies. Not only was this transformation implemented in my community, but other communities across the nation adopted similar models. Agencies started a coalition which resulted in cases being multi-faceted with services provided immediately to victims.
When requested by police officers, victim advocates provided on scene support, resources, referrals, and follow up contact. Additionally, they explained the state victim compensation paperwork and court procedures. While I was chasing down a suspect, the advocates would stay with the victim to seek mental health services and attend to the victim’s safety and emotional support. If the victim was a child, the advocates would assist with medical and mental health services and family support. Subsequently, if a victim requested an advocate to be there every step of the judicial process including an escort to court, they were given such assistance.
What did we find out? Victims, whether male or female-adult or child, did not care the gender of the officer. The victims cared about whether or not they were being heard, being informed of the investigation and judicial procedures, and receiving services. The common prior complaints of police insisting on “just the facts, ma’am” with no empathy, support, or professional services were answered. No longer were victims disappearing prior to trial or having unbearable breakdowns without support. Their cries for help were answered by action and follow up. It should be no surprise that victim cooperation went up and we were seeing mental and physical health needs met by working with community partnership agencies. On the law side, investigations were more thorough and prosecutions were successful.
This plan was met with some liberation and some resistance as well. The liberation is easy to absorb, but why would law enforcement face resistance? The resistance stemmed from internal conflict with advocate-law enforcement relations. The main concern was whether an advocate call out service would interfere with the investigations by having a third party present. This had been experienced in some prior cases. A training module from law enforcement set boundaries and guidelines which restored alliance. As a detective, I was grateful for the partnership and multi-agency investigation model. Closure for victims occurred at a more rapid rate because we were more effective.
As this model progressed forward and experience was gained, the system was preferred by all parties and well known throughout the community. Victims were more comfortable coming forward to law enforcement. Child victims were given a family friendly atmosphere to disclose information and family support immediately with scheduled follow up and care. Safety, mental health, and medical care were a priority for all child and adult victims. Law enforcement and advocates worked together as a team. Not only did this make prosecution of suspects more successful, it gave all victims some empowerment.
Innovative progress has greatly increased for victims of physical abuse and sexual assault crimes, but there is still improvement to be made. Community partnerships can be a great benefit to law enforcement. When all community establishments work together, justice can prevail for special victims. It really does take a village.