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Implementing a Victim Services Program

The tension of being part of law enforcement but also an advocate for victims is inherent when a victim services division is located within a law enforcement agency. Officers may be suspicious of these outsider “do-gooders” who may trample on their turf. Outside agencies may see victim advocates and counselors who work for a law enforcement agency as unable to truly advocate for victims, said Hutchison. To get to the point of providing such comprehensive services to the victims’ families, relatives, classmates, and coworkers in the murders of the two women and young girl took years of work.

The Austin Victim Services Program began in 1980 when the local district attorney received a grant through the federal Law Enforcement Assistance Act (LEAA) to hire three victim coordinators—one for the district attorney’s office, one for the county attorney’s office, and one for the Austin Police Department. The main purpose for the coordinators, from the original point of view, was to gain the support of victims in pursuing criminal cases, hopefully leading to higher conviction rates. At the time, Hutchison had been working at the Austin Child Guidance Center with sexually exploited children. She helped the police take statements from young children so that they would not be retraumatized. She was hired as the Victim Coordinator with the Austin Police Department. Like others in the field, Hutchison saw the program as a way to improve the quality of life and safety for victims and their families.

A year after the grant started, LEAA was eliminated, potentially jeopardizing the program at its birth. The police chief, however, supported the program and went to the city manager and city council for funding. Hutchison was hired as a member of the police department. As she built the Victim Services Division within the Austin law enforcement agency over the past 20 years, Hutchison developed an approach that could help others who want to start a similar program. Hutchison outlined three phases for establishing a victim assistance program within a law enforcement agency. These three phases emphasize the importance of understanding the law enforcement culture and being able to fit in, becoming an essential part of the agency, and developing staff and preventing staff burnout.

The First Phase: Understanding the Law Enforcement Culture

The first phase in the evolution of the Austin program, which comprised the first 3 years of the program, ensured the survival of the program. Hutchison was on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. “I would come back to work any time to prove that it was viable,” Hutchison said. “As much as a police chief might tout it, if it isn’t in the culture and available, you won’t break through.”

In the first few years, the Austin program set up the Crisis Response Team and the Major Crimes Unit, both of which initially went out two nights a week because of limited personnel. The program learned from its mistakes. For example, a counselor who was assigned to the homicide unit was then pulled off by Victim Services to respond to other cases. The sergeants in homicide, however, wanted the counselor to be around and available.

Secure Support From the Top

Law enforcement officers and supervisors are used to seeing programs come and go, and so they are likely to be skeptical of anything new. Compounding this attitude is the fact that civilians are coming into a paramilitary organization. It is never easy for nonsworn people in a law enforcement organization to be listened to, according to Chief Stan Knee. That is why it is critical for the chief to be visibly behind these programs. Those working under the chief, like assistant chiefs and others who have political aspirations, will take a cue from the chief about whether or not a program is valued. “I had top management support from the chief,” Hutchison said. Therefore, a supportive supervisor is essential in establishing a victim services program in a law enforcement agency. “If [officers] see that the chief is not 100 percent behind the program, they get the message. If someone makes a cutting remark and the powers that be don’t stop it, then it is seen as okay to do that,” said Commander Billy Pence. “If the chief seems neutral or opposed, then that’s the green light to dis-count the program or to raid its funding.”

For those who want to establish a similar program, Hutchison suggests how to approach a chief. All chiefs struggle with the dilemma of not having enough patrol officers and having too many calls. Program advocates need to point out that victim services counselors can help free up officer time by working with victims while officers return to pressing calls and investigations. Counselors can also bolster cases by helping victims feel more comfortable with law enforcement. Chiefs have a humanitarian interest in helping to make their communities safer and improving the quality of life, all of which support the goals of victim services.

Ensure That Victim Services Reports to a High-Level Supervisor

Victim services personnel should report to a high-level supervisor like a sheriff or assistant police chief rather than a sergeant or captain. When Hutchison first started working at the Austin Police Department, she reported to a captain in the major crimes division. The captain wanted her to stay around the office, and he could veto her working with patrol or training, which was part of the larger mission of the program. This made it more difficult for her to establish the program with line officers or other parts of the department. When she later moved under an assistant chief, she had more freedom to make program decisions with less supervision. Hutchison had the flexibility to work throughout the department, thus expanding her duties (e.g., training cadets, helping children in a narcotics sting).

Make Victim Services Part of Police General Orders

Another way to institutionalize the program is to put victim services work in the general orders that law enforcement officers must follow. General orders in a police department govern the conduct and responsibility of sworn officers. Requiring the use of victim services in the general orders also ensures that cadets will be trained from the beginning about the role of victim services in the police department. In the Austin Police Department, the general orders require officers to involve the Victim Services Division in 14 types of calls, including homicide, child abuse or child death, aggravated robbery of a business, mass or partial disaster, hostage situations, aviation disaster, and sexual assault. Counselors may receive other calls by request from officers, emergency medical services, or the fire department, or by going to the call and standing by. The Victim Services Division recently had new general orders approved by the department that allow crisis teams to respond to any call and work with any victim or survivor after the officer’s or detective’s job is finished. If the scene is unsafe so that a counselor cannot stay at the scene alone and the officer is impeded from returning to service, then the counselor must move the victims to a safe location. If such a move is not possible, the counselor should leave information about available services for the victim to use later.

Get Key Officers Involved—Find the Informal Power Structure

When Hutchison began building this program, she quickly identified the most respected and influential officers. To do so, she went to every shift for every sector in the city and asked officers whom they would want as a backup in a dangerous situation. In each shift, the same two officers were always chosen. Hutchison went to them and told them that their fellow officers chose them as their most respected officers. She asked them to be part of a patrol officer committee that would write guidelines for exactly how a crisis response team would respond to calls and offer assistance to patrol officers. She could not pay overtime but offered compensatory time. In the end, 60 percent of the officers showed up for the committee and 98 percent of the platoons were represented. The process took 1 year from the initial discussion with patrol officers to formally establishing the guidelines. “I never said, ‘Should we have a crisis team?’” Hutchison pointed out. “I said ‘How do we do this? What is the least threatening way and the most acceptable way to do this?’”

By having patrol officers develop these guidelines, they had some control over this program that proposed to send civilians into crime scenes. Once the officers were assured that they were still in control of their cases, they were willing to allow victim services to begin a partnership with them, working as a team.

Make Their Jobs Easier

Hutchison also rode out on countless shifts with officers and was called to help with cases by the major crime homicide unit, which has the highest status in the department. Hutchison was seen as a part of a team given access to the most guarded and secured scenes. Her presence demonstrated that she was accepted among those respected detectives. She also wanted to be visible to remind patrol officers that she was there to help them. In addition, Hutchison wanted them to see that she was careful and followed protocol around crime scenes. “The key is making their jobs easier,” Hutchison said. “We needed to build trust. We not only saved officers’ time, but we didn’t muck up their cases. This was a criminal investigation, highly secure and confidential. We showed ourselves to be respectful of their power and domain of control. They were willing to give some power back and see us more as partners.”

In any law enforcement agency, small or large, one way to get started is to find a part of the city where the commanders are willing to try this program. Sergeants need to be behind this as well as the chief. For patrol officers, their sergeants are more influential in their day-to-day activity than is their chief. If one or two sergeants believe in the program, they can sell it to their officers.

Understand the Dynamics of the Law Enforcement Culture and Fit In

Hutchison says that it takes a certain type of person to blend into the law enforcement culture. Police are concerned about the security of their case and are wary of outsiders who might inadvertently ruin the investigation or evidence. Someone who is setting up a victim services division within a law enforcement agency needs to understand that culture and feel comfortable there. That may mean bantering with the officers while still pushing the program. Also, Hutchison emphasizes that the police department is not the same as working in a nonprofit advocacy agency. While advocacy is a top priority, victim advocates must also understand the law enforcement culture and blend in to attain the goals of meeting the needs of victims and officers. Hutchison gives the example: “A victim advocate may hear two officers making a joke at a crime scene away from others’ ears, which may not be necessarily cold-hearted but just relieving tension.”

Start With the Basics—Help Patrol Officers With Family Violence Calls

When the Austin Victim Services Program started, Commander Billy Pence was a patrol officer and part of the informal power structure that Hutchison had identified. Police had the attitude that “we’re cops and you’re not,” Pence recalled. Patrol officers, however, also recognized that they had a problem they did not know how to solve. “The thing with cops is that we were making these calls for family disturbances and, back then, unless we saw the man assault the wife, we couldn’t do anything,” Pence said. “I remember making those calls and feeling really bad about leaving. When Ann [Hutchison] came up with the program, it was an answer. It freed up our time. [In the past] there was a lot of time spent sitting with victims—that was time consuming and yet we felt bad that we weren’t doing more.”

Initially, the police chief wanted Hutchison to work on family violence cases. Most of the family violence calls came between 6 p.m. and 2 a.m. on the weekends when all the social service agencies, except rape crisis shelters and shelters for battered women (normally full), were closed. To have a trained counselor able to come to the scene immediately meant that an officer could get back in service faster and respond to other calls. An officer also had something more to offer a victim. Counselors could provide a sympathetic ear, crisis counseling, and practical resources for victims of family violence. (By the time the Austin Victim Services Program began in March 1980, the officer guidelines committee had recommended that counselors be available for all call requests.)

Victim services counselors started with providing basic services to patrol officers. If police were executing a series of search warrants and had to arrest parents, counselors would take care of the children so officers could go on to the next call. Babysitting may not be the favorite duty of trained counselors, but it often allowed them an opportunity to assess any trauma or problems that the children were having, thus demonstrating that the counselors were a valuable addition to the police department. They also established a goal of arriving at a scene within 15 minutes or less for 75 percent of calls so that the officers did not have to wait for them.

Assistant Police Chief Michael McDonald recalled an incident early in the Victim Services Program in which the counselors proved themselves. He was a patrol officer at that time, and one morning at about 8 a.m. he received a call of a possible sexual assault. He arrived at an apartment and knocked on the door. A woman opened the door just a couple of inches. She was distraught and afraid. McDonald remembers her hands trembling. McDonald and his partner talked to her and tried to persuade her to let them in, but she would not open the door further. He worried that the assailant might still be inside and wondered whether he should force his way in. But he sensed that the woman was alone and did not want to traumatize her more by barging in. McDonald decided to call Victim Services. It was one of the first times he had asked them for help.

A female counselor arrived and talked to the woman for about 45 minutes. Then the counselor told McDonald that she thought the woman was embarrassed to talk to another woman about what had happened, which surprised McDonald. The counselor recommended calling in a male colleague, which the officers did. The man spoke to her and persuaded her to let them in the house. Four hours after McDonald arrived, the woman opened the door. Once inside, the woman told them that she went into her apartment building the night before when a man followed her, forced his way into her place, and raped her. From the description, it sounded similar to two other rapes that had taken place in the area. Police had a suspect, but none of the victims could positively identify him. From the look of this case, police had run into the same difficulty. The woman was reluctant to say much, and she had already taken a shower, thus destroying some of the evidence of the crime.

“We started asking questions and she froze up,” McDonald said. “The counselors talked to her and said that they knew how bad it was for her but that it was important to catch the person responsible for this. She shouldn’t feel ashamed.” The counselors explained to her that the officers needed to gather her clothes for testing, and she eventually told the counselors which clothes McDonald and his partner should collect from her bedroom. The counselors accompanied the woman to the hospital examination. The evidence that the officers gathered, along with her positive identification of the assailant, helped convict the suspect. “[The counselors] made a tremendous difference,” McDonald said. “We didn’t have to overreact and make things worse for her.”

Address Problems and Conflicts Quickly

When problems occur, and they will, it is critical that the victim services coordinator address them quickly. For example, an officer might perceive that a counselor did not follow his or her requests. It is important for victim services counselors to have established good rapport with law enforcement officers so that officers will come to them when there are problems. Counselors need to listen to the officers’ issues and validate their feelings and issues. According to Hutchison, every time she talked to an officer about a problem, it worked out well. All of the officers were more than willing to see both sides or accept Hutchison’s apology, if necessary. In fact, most officers now are protective of the Austin counselors and want to work out differences quickly, according to Hutchison.

Second Phase: Becoming an Essential Part of the Agency

The second phase of the program is changing victim services from being viewed as a luxury to being accepted as an essential part of the law enforcement agency. In Austin, that took an additional 10 years. During that time, Hutchison focused on program development and on ensuring that the staff delivered quality services. One of the difficulties for Hutchison was handing over power to her staff. For the first several years, she was the program, and she knew she could do the job. For it to grow and provide more comprehensive services, Hutchison had to delegate responsibilities and duties.

Add More Services

The program also concentrated on securing grants to add more services and on establishing performance measures and collecting statistics to back up the Division’s usefulness. During the second phase, the program added the Children’s Service Unit through a grant in 1984 and the Family Violence Protection Unit in 1989. In 1985, counselors also started formally offering debriefings for officers who worked on traumatic cases. From time to time, Hutchison would call together the patrol officers’ guidelines committee to check on how the program was going and to make any needed changes.

“By 1990, we were seen as a strong, important part of the Austin Police Department,” Hutchison said. “That doesn’t mean that we are equals. That’s just a reality. Civilians are support staff to law enforcement. But we are key personnel to advocate for victims, the community, and the officers.”

Develop and Track Measurable Goals and Keep Good Statistics

Having measurable goals and keeping track of them is a way to monitor a program’s progress and to demonstrate to law enforcement and to funders that the services are making a difference. Each unit of the Austin Victim Services Division has specific goals that are tracked every month. The program’s highest number of calls are for family violence, and it has a goal of reducing the number of calls to the same household or the recidivism rate with the families they work with to 10 percent; the national average is 55 percent to 65 percent. In 1998, the recidivism rate was about 20 percent on calls that Victim Services worked on in Austin. According to statistics compiled by the Austin program, if officers respond to four or more calls to the same address for family violence, it escalates the predictability of an aggravated assault or homicide by 75 percent. The Victim Services Division also has a goal of getting some services to 100 percent of all victims of violent crime. Counselors are reaching about one-third of the victims, Hutchison said. Those services can include having volunteers call victims who have not received services to see how they are doing and whether they need any emotional support. The Victim Services Division is also working on running public service announcements and putting up billboards so that crime victims will know about victim services. The Victim Services Division is establishing alliances with faith communities, who can help victims with needs such as transportation, house repairs, food, and rent.

Another important statistic to keep is the number of officer hours saved by providing these services. That statistic is a good way of quantifying to law enforcement agencies the impact of these victim services. In 1999, Victim Services Division Crisis Teams saved the Austin Police Department patrol officers 3,672 hours—time that they would have otherwise spent with victims. Instead, Victim Services counselors worked with victims in many ways, which included calming them down, taking statements, and arranging for transportation or services. This allowed officers to finish investigating a crime or to take more calls.

Third Phase: Maintaining Staff

Take Care of Your Own

In this third phase, the Victim Services Division took a step back and examined what they needed to do to take care of themselves as well. While they often held debriefings for officers involved in cases of traumatic deaths, they rarely did the same for themselves. According to Hutchison, the counselors were so concerned about proving to officers that they were tough enough to handle the job that at times they neglected their own well-being. Now, policies are in place to make sure that counselors take care of themselves and are taken care of. No one can handle more than three death cases per week without approval from a supervisor. Supervisors meet every other week with counselors, and the units hold staff meetings twice a month to see how people handle group interactions. Every counselor talks to a staff psychologist every 6 months for a checkup.

Hire Staff With Varying Backgrounds

When hiring for a victim services unit, it is important to hire skilled individuals who reflect the needs of the community. The Austin program has made special efforts to bring cultural diversity to the unit—to hire staff who speak Spanish, have specialized training in working with children, and have expertise in crisis intervention. The program hires mental health professionals with varying levels of experience who handle a variety of situations from crisis intervention to assessment. In addition, the Austin program has a number of staff who support victims through the criminal justice system by providing them information about the case and about their rights. Many programs choose to have victim advocates in this position. The Austin program utilizes other mental health professionals for this work. Everyone who is hired or who volunteers first undergoes careful screening to ensure that they are suited for the often stressful work.

The program has also set up a structure for volunteers. At first, the program used volunteers who were criminal justice interns and undergraduates in mental health, but the cases were too intense and demanded too much immediate assessment for the students’ abilities. Now, all volunteers must have a background in mental health or 2 years of counseling experience. They are given a criminal background check and must go through 60 hours of training over 8 weeks to be on a crisis team. Those who want to volunteer must go on an 8-hour ride-along shift with a police officer who gives input about whether they are well suited for this work. Volunteers also must commit to working one 8-hour shift a month for a year.

People volunteer for the crisis team because they want to use or develop their skills in crisis counseling. Not a lot of academic courses exist on crisis counseling, according to Steve Holifield, a licensed professional counselor who coordinates the training. Law enforcement personnel teach some of the volunteer classes, which is one way for them to become invested in the program. Paid counselors can nominate volunteers to be team lead-ers who drive the car, work the radio, and make all the same decisions as the staff. The program currently has 12 volunteers who are team leaders. Holifield keeps in touch with the volunteers by e-mailing them or calling to check in after each shift that they work.

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Establishing Victim Services Within a Law Enforcement Agency:
The Austin Experience
March 2001
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