he Austin Police Departments Victim Services Division is among a relatively small number of victim assistance divisions that work within law enforcement agencies. Being part of a law enforcement agency allows Division counselors to quickly respond to victims needs, meet officers at a crime scene, and provide victims with a mix of immediate crisis counseling and practical advice. Until recently, victim services divisions within law enforcement agencies were relatively rare. Most victim services programs were located at nonprofit agencies or within prosecutors offices, although only 21 percent of major crimes get to the prosecutors office. This means that about 80 percent of crime victims may not have victim assistance available to them unless a unit exists within a police department, according to Chief Stan Knee of the Austin Police Department. Our Victim Services people arrive minutes after the officer gets there, as the paramedic is wiping the blood off the forehead of a badly battered spouse, Chief Knee said. They get a better perspective of the victim than from just reading a police report. The program initiates crisis counseling during or shortly after a crime has occurred, rather than weeks or months later. The Victim Services Division provides crisis and trauma counseling to victims, families, witnesses, and others, and assistance to patrol officers and investigators on cases.
Establishing a victim services program within a law enforcement agency makes sense for several reasons, advocates say. If victims receive support from victim services counselors, they may be more likely to report a crime or cooperate in an investigation. That support is an added tool for law enforcement agencies to increase their conviction rates. Victim services work complements community policing, which emphasizes establishing relationships with members of a neighborhood. Having a victim services counselor on the scene can free up officer time; the counselor can talk with a victim while the officer goes back into service. Also, the counselor can act as a liaison for a child if a parent is being arrested and officers need to move to the next call. A law enforcement agency is also a natural entry point for victims to see advocates/counselors after they have been victimized.
The number of programs located in police and sheriffs departments is a small but growing part of victim services assistance in the United States. In 1999, Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) programs awarded victim assistance grants to only 209 law enforcement agencies out of 18,000 nationwide. In comparison, 428 prosecutors offices received VOCA victim assistance grants in 1998 out of 2,500 nationwide. Still, the number of law enforcement agencies receiving VOCA grants has increased from 113 in 1997.