Focusing on what's vital for victims

     The significance and impact of criminal victimization has, in recent decades, elicited a notable change in focus and attention within the criminal justice system. Both increased awareness and knowledge of how crime affects victims' lives have produced a response that was historically nonexistent or, at best, limited. Professionals in the law enforcement arena today are more adept at responding to the specific needs of victims.

     Assistant Chief Earl Paysinger, of the Los Angeles (California)Police Department has been in the crime-fighting business for 32 years. He understands the need for police departments to have a vested interest in understanding how, where and why crimes are committed, but also recognizes it is important to determine if a systems approach can be utilized to deal with crime. He believes it is vital to conduct a basic analysis of all elements of crime and analyze it in an empirical way.

     He believes that police must be more intelligent and responsive to victims. "We have to do a better job of analyzing our victims," he says. Paysinger says this includes the behavioral and economic attributes that distinguish who the victims are, what they look like, the property they carry and the company they keep.

Domestic violence

     "Domestic violence is a priority. Domestic violence within the home is the epicenter of just about everything we have to deal with on the street. The problem is deep," Paysinger says. He believes education, prevention and intervention are essential to minimizing victimization.

     "We tend, in law enforcement, to be far too reactive when there are ideas we can leverage," he says. In his jurisdiction, Domestic Abuse Response Teams (DART) respond to domestic violence incidents. The teams identify social issues that exist within the family component and consider the psychological, sexual and physical dimensions of the abuse.

     "The long-term element of DART is the responsibility of conducting a biopsy of the family unit," Paysinger says. "It identifies traits and tendencies in the family unit and provides appropriate resources — municipal, county or state — that will help guide that family back into the mainstream."

     Dissecting multicultural differences also embraces criminal victimization. Det. Carlos Selvi of the Baltimore County (Maryland) Police Department specializes in domestic violence, and regularly reaches out to victims. He works with 10 precincts, each with one domestic violence coordinator. Selvi's work is concentrated amongst the Hispanic population. He believes officers need to have knowledge of Hispanic culture, and understand that victims tend to be distrustful of the police and often reluctant to contact them. He advises officers to educate themselves about problems that exist in the communities they work with.

     "Be compassionate and keep an open mind," he tells officers. "Do what you need to do. Be as human as you can."

     Rural communities are also impacted by domestic violence. Chief Dennis Butler of the Ottawa (Kansas) Police Department has been proactive in combating domestic violence-related problems in his jurisdiction.

     "Domestic violence cases are very complex, emotionally charged and difficult to keep on track — especially because of the physical and emotional trauma inflicted upon these victims over extended periods," Butler says. "But, if police administrators implement progressive investigative policies and provide the proper training, officers overcome their reluctance and frustrations once they have the tools necessary to investigate these crimes effectively."

     In Ottawa, patrol officers are the first responders and preliminary investigators on domestic violence and stalking cases. They work a range of abuse cases. The domestic violence unit performs a case review on all investigations, contacts victims and performs additional follow-up when necessary.

     In addition to working with domestic violence, Butler says there has been a surge in sexual assault reports. "Our officers have wondered out loud why we have seen a surge in sex cases," Butler explains. "My response is that these crimes have been occurring all along in our community and in every other community. The difference now, is that victims are coming forward because they are confident we will do something about it. No matter the issue, it is critical to give officers the knowledge and training they need to succeed and to ultimately help people."

     The judiciary also can be responsive to victims of domestic violence in an effective way.

     "One of the responses of the courts ... is the establishment of special dockets where only domestic violence cases are scheduled. This allows the judiciary to direct its full attention and resources to these important cases," Mark O'Brien, district court judge in Prince George County, Maryland, says. O'Brien acknowledges that victims often find the criminal justice system intimidating.

     "Taking the witness stand to testify is an experience daunting enough to take the average person's breath away," he says. "Sometimes victims are so nervous, they cannot effectively put on their testimony."

     O'Brien explains that when victims and witnesses can relate their experience comfortably before the court, a more effective outcome results. He recognizes the important role of victim and witness specialists in the courtroom who act as a liaison between victims and the prosecutor.

     "The victim/witness specialists check facts, communicate with witnesses and relate to the prosecutors the wishes and concerns of the victims," O'Brien explains. "They also maintain communication with victims before and after court, and they advise victims of available resources."

     Victim-impact statements can also aid the court in the sentencing phase of the case, O'Brien says. Though the prosecutor is usually able to relay the impact the crime has had on the victim, a statement by a victim can make a difference.

     "The very personal impact of the victim is not fully communicated until the victim stands and, in his or her own words, describes the pain, injury and fear that the crime brought into their life," he says. "This puts a face on the crime and makes the event more personal, real and visceral."

     Statements in a victim's own words can produce a powerful and moving communication between the victim and court, and could influence the court's disposition. Particularly in domestic violence cases, strong emotions can accompany the victim-impact statement because the victim relives the trauma.

     "I have found that, on several occasions, the victim's statement has changed my perspective on a case and caused me to alter my sentence, usually to the defendant's detriment," says O'Brien. Complex relationships between victims and offenders in domestic violence cases differentiate them from other crime victims. O'Brien explains that the special relationships often lead the victim to petition to the court for sentence alternatives that address the issues, which brought the offender into the court system.

Teen victimization

     Though they are more likely to not report crimes or seek assistance, teenagers are more victimized than other age groups. Consequently, they are at greater risk for anxiety, depression and problems with relationships both at home and at school. For this reason, the National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC) developed the Youth Outreach for Victim Assistance (YOVA) project in conjunction with the Department of Justice's Office for Victims of Crime. Through the program, the peer mentors receive training on how to convey to teens that they are not alone and help is available. It also addresses issues such as bullying, the dynamics of victimization and outreach campaigns. Joselle Shea, manager of the Children and Youth Initiative at NCPC, says teens are able to brainstorm ways to communicate the project's message that may be lost to adults or older counselors.

     "[Teen mentors] come up with ideas that I would never dream of," Shea says. "They make such an impact in the community."

     "Across the United States, communities want programs and resources to deal with this and help communities take action," Shea says.

     Outreach to young people is conducted through schools and victim service agencies along with public awareness events in the community that include fashion shows, basketball tournaments, school-wide assemblies and public service ads.

Preparing for mass trauma

     In August 2007, a total of 78 police, fire, EMS, the Office of Emergency Management and sheriff's department personnel in Arlington County, Virginia, conducted an active shooter exercise at Marymount University. Arlington County Police Chief Douglas Scott believes that preemptive measures can be taken to prevent or minimize harm in an active shooter scenario.

     "History demonstrates attacks at our schools are absolutely predictable. The attackers are motivated for any number of reasons but, often, the results are deadly," Scott says. "We must do everything possible to prevent future attacks, and if we can't prevent them from occurring, then our tactical response must be done in a way to reduce injuries and deaths and end the violence as swiftly as possible."

     The drill enabled participants to engage in a simulated, live event which could result in a multitude of casualties. After the response was critiqued by participants, individuals and the group learned what needed improvement.

     "No matter how good you believe you are tactically, this type of training and exercise always demonstrates areas for improvement," Scott explains. "We got that from the Marymount active shooter scenario. The post-scenario debriefing and follow-up training provided tremendous insight related to our operational tactics, interagency communication and overall incident management."

     It is hoped the post-event training will help Arlington better respond to a shooting incident. "I truly hope we will never have to employ these lessons learned at a school or university in Arlington but, if we do, I have the confidence in our ability to respond in a manner that will likely save lives."

     Most officials will agree that there can never be enough planning and preparation when it comes to dealing with a crisis analogous to last year's Virginia Tech tragedy.

     Jack Brown, deputy director of the Arlington County Office of Emergency Management believes that the more training for events of mass trauma, the better.

     "We need to do more of this. It helps develop relationships through a real-world event," Brown says. "We still need to plan for the worse."

     Victim services and incident response must be a priority in planning proactive measures to deter and reduce the incidence and consequences of victimization. As public safety professionals are aware, it is not wise to assume schools are always safe places: History has proven that victimization is a violent reality, in monumental and tragic proportions.

Community outreach

     Brett Parson, lieutenant and commanding officer of the Special Liaison Unit of the Office of the Chief for the state of Washington's Metropolitan Police Department, understands the value of working with the multicultural community to minimize victimization. He commands the Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender (GLBT) unit as well as the Asian, Latino, and Deaf and Hard of Hearing units. He recognizes the need for his officers to spend substantial time with these underserved communities. Parson has discovered that within the Asian community, many victims are owners and workers at restaurants who have been robbed and assaulted. In the Latino community, quality-of-life (or public order) crimes predominate. Many individuals tend to carry large amounts of cash and some do not speak English. Within the hard-of-hearing community, victims of robberies and domestic violence prevail. Parson acknowledges staff must be culturally competent concerning the proper way to deal with victims in these communities.

     Ellen Alexander, director of victim services for the Montgomery County (Maryland) PD, also understands the importance of reaching out to victims and the community. Her unit engages in personal outreach, on average, for approximately 10,000 victims of crime per year, and assists with death notifications, funeral preparation and media relations. The program facilitates connections between police officers and the community. "We know what is happening," she says. "Police are often not a community's favorite. I think working with victims and showing them courtesy and dignity increases satisfaction, even if it's not a positive outcome. We're great [public relations] for the softer side of policing."

     Concern and outreach for victims is also extended by the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Parole, which places high priority on advocacy for victims' rights, extending compassion to those affected by crime. It hosts "visitor's days," which allow victims to speak with the board. This effort brings state government to victims and their families.

     Regardless of the locality where crime occurs, the impact on victims and survivors alters their lives and in some instances, changes them forever. For these reasons, law enforcement professionals and victim services personnel must be proactive in utilizing practical strategies and effective response mechanisms to ensure that crime victims are treated with the sensitivity, dignity and the respect they deserve.

     Karen Bune is a victim specialist at the State's Attorney's Office for Prince George's County, Maryland. She teaches victimology at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia, as well as at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. She can be reached at