Friday, October 18, 2013

New unit is devoted to helping violent crime victims

I'm excited about our new Victim Assistance Unit and how it's reaching out to victims of violent crime. It was one of my first priorities. Within three days of my appointment to Chief, I picked a director who could put the Victim Assistance Unit together. Check out this story about the Unit from our Informant newsletter:

Often before a detective is even assigned to an aggravated assault case, a victim assistance specialist in the new Victim Assistance Unit already has reached out to the victim.

The new unit is part of the Community Support Division and went live on Sept. 9. It is staffed by three sworn officers and a civilian who was a former officer and crime scene technician. But they don’t wear uniforms.
“We don’t say anything about being police officers or detectives (when talking to victims),” Specialist Detective Jerry Grubb said. “We just tell them we’re victim assistance specialists.”

Community Support Division Manager Doug Weishar said every day, the specialists are assigned whatever aggravated assault cases took place the night before. Oftentimes, their cases haven’t even been assigned to a detective yet. The victim assistance specialists’ job is to contact the victims and offer them three things:

1.)    Information on victim assistance, such as what their rights are by state statute and information on victim compensation.
2.)    Answers to any questions they have about the criminal justice system and where their case is in it.
3.)    Assistance with any needs regarding injuries or losses they sustained. The Victim Assistance Unit has partnered with about 30 organizations throughout the City that offer everything from trauma counseling to shelter.

Weishar said an ultimate goal of the unit is to have an enhanced response to every violent crime victim in Kansas City, which would be about 10,000 to 11,000 people per year. Victim Advocate Jennifer Miller continues her work with the families of homicide victims, and the Victim Assistance Unit is starting their work with aggravated assault victims. They will expand to other violent crime victims soon.

Weishar said the victim assistance specialists are not charged with convincing victims to prosecute their cases.

“Empathy and compassion are a good deal of what we do,” he said. “Having said that, we realize some of them are suspects themselves. We hope that by showing that kind of attention to them, we can subtly persuade them to cooperate where they may not have before.”

Victim Assistance Specialist Officer Kevin White said he has gone to hospitals to reach out to injured victims and their families. He follows up with them to see how they’re recovering. Several of the people he’s contacted have been surprised to hear from him.

“People on the phone are just shocked to hear the police department call them to see how they’re doing,” Officer White said. “They didn’t expect those phone calls.”

Victims already have taken advantage of services like trauma and spiritual counseling, bilingual assistance and housing help.

“We don’t just give them a phone number to call,” Weishar said. “We actually contact those community resources ourselves and find one that agrees to assist them. Then we hand (the victims) off to them.”
With the help of the department’s Information Technology staff, the victim assistance specialists can see what detectives have done on the cases, and detectives can see what contact the specialists have had with victims. But the specialists are careful not to get into the investigative arena. Weishar said this is a different layer, and the specialists want to develop trust with the victims.

Weishar said he eventually hopes to have trained volunteers and college interns as part of the unit, enabling them to assist as many violent crime victims as possible.