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Lifesaving Leadership to Break the Cycle of Family Violence: Partnerships between Law Enforcement and Communities

By Bill Lansdowne, Chief of Police, San Diego, California; and Casey Gwinn Former San Diego City Attorney, San Diego, California

Strong, proactive law enforcement leadership in the struggle to address family violence can protect victims and their children, break the cycle of family violence, and save the lives of police officers. Pro-arrest jurisdictions and evidence-based investigation approaches have demonstrated these truths for nearly 25 years. But another truth is emerging in domestic violence work—we will never arrest or prosecute our way out of the problem. This means public safety leaders must build stronger partnerships with medical, social, legal, and mental health professionals if we are truly going to break the generational cycle of family violence and stem the tide of children from domestic violence homes currently flowing into our juvenile halls and state prisons.

The evidence is clear that multi-agency, multi-disciplinary centers called Family Justice Centers offer law enforcement executives a tremendous opportunity to be public safety leaders and break the cycle of family violence.1 Ten years into the rapidly growing Family Justice Center movement (multi-agency co-located service responses to domestic violence, child abuse, and sexual assault), strong indices of success and effectiveness are beginning to emerge at the 80 operating centers in the United States. With more than 30 Family Justice Centers that are led by law enforcement agencies, the crucial role of law enforcement leadership in advocating for such centers and leading the effort to create centers in local communities is clear. This article is a clarion call to law enforcement leaders across this country and around the world to embrace the Family Justice Center model and the partnerships with non-governmental agencies that can help law enforcement be far more effective in addressing and preventing intimate partner violence than ever before.

Every police chief aspires to be a true public safety leader—as former Anaheim, California, Police Chief John Welter has articulated: “Starting a Family Justice Center is what it means to be a true advocate for public safety.” Chief Welter accepted the Anaheim chief of police job only on the condition that the mayor and council would support the creation of a Family Justice Center. Former San Diego Police Chief David Bejarano advocated for the San Diego Family Justice Center because he viewed it as the “logical extension of community-oriented policing.”

“During my tenure as the Chief in San Jose, California, I (Chief Lansdowne) saw it as my duty to be a leader on family violence prevention issues given the high percentage of all crime calls that relate to family violence.”

And “I (former San Diego City Attorney Casey Gwinn) saw it as the only way to truly build cases that could be proven in court even if the victim chose not to participate or testify.”

But beyond all these reasons, the research is now telling us that Family Justice Centers are the most effective way for law enforcement agencies to address family violence.

Key findings are now emerging out of a major 2013 study of eight Family Justice Centers in California as well as a number of other evaluations on the effectiveness of the Family Justice Center model. The key themes that are emerging from the research should spur on many other law enforcement leaders to pursue the Family Justice Center model in their rural, suburban, and urban communities.2

Coordinated Community Response on Steroids

Ellen Pence, one of the leading advocates for aggressive law enforcement responses to family violence, challenged us all to push for well-run, integrated centers across America. Before Ellen Pence’s death in 2011, she spoke about Family Justice Centers and placed them onto the continuum of service delivery models and community responses to family violence: “The Family Justice Center movement is coordinated community response on steroids!”3 Communities that have developed a coordinated community response have laid the groundwork for having Family Justice Centers. And with the foundation laid, the power of the co-located, multi-agency model is magnified in expanding the influence and impact of strong, close working relationships among individuals and agencies.

Law enforcement agencies, advocates, health care providers, child protection services, local businesses, the media, employers, faith communities, and others working with victims of domestic violence should be involved in a coordinated community response. Health care providers are often critical participants. Doctors, nurses, and emergency room workers may see and treat women who do not or cannot seek other kinds of assistance. The goal of a coordinated community response is to create an accessible network of support for victims and their families, which also produces better criminal justice system outcomes.

The Family Justice Center model, by co-locating all the partners or many of the partners in a coordinated community response model, can magnify the benefits of such coordination while making it easier for victims to obtain the services they need.

Relationship Building

Perhaps one of the greatest impacts of attempting to bring everyone together under one roof is simply the process of cross-training and relationship building that happens during the journey. Nampa, Idaho, Police Chief Craig Kingsbury recently penned these words about the partnership between the Nampa Family Justice Center and the Nampa Police Department and all the other onsite agencies at their center: “By all coming together under one roof, we have all helped each other be more effective and more efficient. We can work together on cases every day. We can coordinate services for victims and their children. We can all help produce evidence that will hold the offender accountable. It is no longer every agency doing its own thing. We are a team and the power of our team is making everyone’s job easier.”4 Law enforcement agencies have seen the power of collaborative teams already in child abuse, elder abuse, sexual assault, and a host of other arenas—domestic violence work is no exception to this powerful trend. Gael Strack, the CEO of the National Family Justice Center Alliance and the first Director of the San Diego Family Justice Center accurately calls it “the power of WE.” Close working relationships are the basis for healthy teams and effective multi-disciplinary work and Family Justice Centers promote this important team building.

Homicide Reduction

Many Family Justice Center communities with strong law enforcement leadership have reported significant drops in domestic violence homicides in the wake of creating or expanding their colocated services models. Early in the development of Family Justice Centers in New York City, family violence related crimes declined by 21 percent and intimate partner homicides declined by 51 percent citywide.5 Mayor Michael Bloomberg widely credited the Family Justice Center collaborative and partnerships between NYPD, the District Attorney’s Offices, and other agencies as central to the major crime reductions in New York City.

The San Diego Police Department, which leads the Family Justice center in San Diego, has also reported major drops in domestic violence homicides since the opening of the center. Monitoring of homicides by the San Diego Police Department has documented a nearly 60 percent drop in homicides since the center opened in 2002 and a 90 percent drop in domestic violence homicides in the city since its first collaborative work began between the Police Department, the YWCA, the District Attorney’s Office, and the City Attorney’s Office in the early 1990s.

Alameda County, California, has also experienced a dramatic drop in domestic violence homicide from 30 in 2001 to 7 in 2007. The Alameda County Board of Supervisors and the District Attorney’s Office has attributed this drop to three major initiatives – the creation of the Alameda County Family Justice Center (FJC), the establishment of the Domestic Violence Response Team (DVRT), and the creation of the Sexual Assault Response Teams (SART).6 This coincided with a notable increase in calls to law enforcement agencies and shelter and social service providers at the center, indicators that victims are increasingly seeking help before the violence escalates to homicide in Alameda County.

Increased Participation in Criminal Prosecution by Victims

One of the biggest challenges facing law enforcement officials and prosecutors in America today is the ongoing reluctance of victims of family violence to participate in the prosecution of cases against their partners. Research shows the Family Justice Center model changes this paradigm. Most recently, Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley has documented dramatic improvements in a victim’s willingness to testify once the Alameda County Family Justice Center, a partnership with the Oakland Police Department and Sheriff’s Department, opened in 2006.

In 2006, the first year the Alameda County FJC opened, 55 percent of misdemeanors were not charged because the victim refused to participate and the case was not otherwise provable. In the ensuing three years after the entire prosecution team integrated themselves into the FJC, the percentage of cases that were not charged decreased.

  • 2007: Decreased to 36 percent
  • 2008: Decreased to 22 percent
  • 2009: Decreased to 19 percent

The felony domestic violence cases of the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office showed the same pattern. In 2006, 31 percent of felony domestic violence cases submitted by law enforcement agencies were not charged because the victim refused to participate and the case was not otherwise provable. In the ensuing three years, the percentage of felony cases that were not charged decreased.

  • 2007: Decreased to 23 percent
  • 2008: Decreased to 18.87 percent
  • 2009: Decreased to 18.68 percent

The Nampa Family Justice Center, in outcome studies conducted by Boise State University, has reported similar impacts. Indeed, Family Justice Centers in Salt Lake City, Utah; San Diego, California; Anaheim, California; Tacoma, Washington; New York City, New York; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and other communities have all reported similar feedback from prosecutors and police officers working in their centers.7

The pattern is clear and not surprising. Any domestic violence shelter advocate in America can tell you the same thing. When a victim is wrapped in safety, support, and services, she does not recant or minimize at nearly the rate she does when she is scared, unsupported, alone, and fully exposed to the threats and manipulation of her abuser. And when the abuser is held accountable, he is less likely to later assault or kill a law enforcement officer, another family member, or a third-party intervener.8

High Levels of Satisfaction by Clients

Multiple evaluations have now been conducted in a variety of Family Justice Centers that demonstrate the positive impacts in the lives of victims seeking services at centers. The most recent study was just provided to the California State Legislature, a study of eight California Family Justice Centers and the findings are powerful. The documented findings confirmed high levels of satisfaction from 4,449 clients served in the centers. Strikingly, 100 percent of the clients interviewed or surveyed in the study loved the FJC model and wanted more services in the centers, not less. Clients coming to centers were also far more likely to cooperate with law enforcement investigations and prosecutors in the prosecution of the abuser. Police departments that have fully engaged as onsite partners in centers are reporting high levels of satisfaction from victims on cases they are handling at the center.

Victim-Centered Innovations
Warm and welcoming “front porch” or reception area
Image courtesy of the Crystal Judson Family Justice Center

Perhaps the most exciting development in the Family Justice Center movement in the last 10 years has been the infusion of new energy and creativity around the multi-agency model. New space designs, new program approaches, and new collaborative ideas have emerged that have challenged other centers to think bigger, to be more creative, and to listen to survivors about how they want centers to look and feel. The more survivors have been asked what they want and what they need, the more survivors have helped to design centers and develop needed programs.

Front Porches: Most centers have worked hard to create “front porches” or reception areas that are warm and welcoming. At the Crystal Judson Family Justice Center in Tacoma, Washington, victims make comments daily about the facility, the quality, the atmosphere, and the beauty. The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department and the Tacoma Police Department have both benefitted from having their detectives working in the Center in Tacoma.

Such comments are being received in centers around the country today. For those that previously worked out of Police Departments and District Attorney’s Offices, we know that no one ever complimented those facilities for their warmth, atmosphere, or amenities. But Family Justice Centers are now producing this outcome in communities across the United States.
For me this was a scary step for a very long time—my welcome here was such that I was compelled to make this move—finally. I’m so glad I have and the staff was very cool!!! I love the calm, peaceful feeling I get from being here. Everyone was very helpful and kind to me. The FJC is very beautifully furnished and has a calm atmosphere.

—Anonymous Client,
Crystal Judson Family
Justice Center (Tacoma, WA)

Children’s “Disney” room
Image courtesy of the Orange County Family Justice Center
Children’s Rooms: One of the very special features in many centers that has emerged as the movement has evolved is the creation of a special children’s room. The vision came from the Child Advocacy Center movement. Former Director of the National Child Advocacy Center in Huntsville, Alabama, Charles Wilson said our goal should be to have rooms where children wanted to have their birthday parties. San Diego gave it a good start, but the police-led Anaheim Family Justice Center set the standard when they had Disneyland design their children’s room.

And kids do want to have their birthday parties there! How amazing, that in a center run by a police department, where we deal with violence, abuse, trauma, and terror that children love to come there and play while mom is seeking services.

Dress for Success: A number of centers have reached out to their local Dress for Success chapter to bring their program inside the Family Justice Center. The Boston Family Justice Center, with strong leadership from the Boston Police Department led the way. With the vision of Joi Gordon, the President and CEO of Dress for Success, they set up a beautiful boutique right inside the center—again rejecting a “referral” approach and providing the services of Dress for Success right in the center. Today, Dress for Success has a boutique in the San Diego Family Justice Center and partners in many other centers, working alongside detectives and prosecutors to address the job training and clothing needs of survivors.

Support, Support, Support: When agencies come together in one place, the support system for a victim increases exponentially. In many centers, the support is no longer one advocate from one agency. The support team may include volunteers at a center, a detective, prosecutor, nurse, doctor, counselor, child trauma specialist, locksmith, civil attorney, court support advocate, and many others. Over and over victims say they feel like everyone is on their side at Family Justice Centers. They are overwhelmed by how many people are all trying to protect them, advocate for them, and help them. It is not the same dynamic when a victim must travel from place to place and agency to agency seeking the services she or he needs.

Accessible, Holistic Legal Services: One of the great innovations of Family Justice Centers has been accessible legal assistance without having to go to court. The Tulsa Family Safety Center in Oklahoma led the way with a video hook-up to Family Court for its clients. Montgomery County, Maryland, Sheriff Darren Popkin hard wired a video hook-up from the Family Justice Center to the courthouse. In Anaheim, California, as well, former Police Chief John Welter leveraged his connections and relationships in a police-led center to reach out to the civil legal community to do things that police departments don’t usually spend their time doing. But victims are the beneficiaries of his willingness to think outside the box.

Other centers are using fax or electronic filing protocols to allow victims to file for restraining orders without having to go to court. While the children play at the FJC, mom (or dad) is in another room working with a lawyer and filing an application for legal protection without ever leaving the Family Justice Center. Social services can be delivered at the same time and in the same place as civil legal services. Through coordination with police departments and prosecutors’ offices, it is also easier to get police reports and copies of evidence in the criminal case if everyone is co-located. Easier access to the evidence produces better applications for restraining orders and better evidence when judges consider issuing long-term, permanent court orders of protection. If there is an on-site Forensic Medical Unit, pictures can be taken at the same time that the civil legal team is preparing the restraining order application. The pictures can then be easily attached and the judge’s job in court becomes much easier. When victims have such services, they rely less on the law enforcement response for their needs, thus reducing the workload for detectives.
I had a marvelous detective and a counselor from the Center for Community Solutions. They got me through the devastation and the physical injuries. They were a godsend for communicating with the DA and everyone, especially after my phone was shut off. With my father with Alzheimer’s and a number of deaths in the family, I was able to come to the Family Justice Center to get assistance, take a deep breath, have tea, and get help. Almost daily, I commuted 30 miles from Oceanside, used the phone here, used the Internet, and met with anyone who could help and see me. I was here so often it was my second home.

—Anonymous San Diego
Family Justice Center Client

Medical Services: Another innovation in Family Justice Centers has been the placement of health clinics or Forensic Medical Units right on site. Domestic violence shelters long ago realized the benefit of medical services on site for victims and their children. In the FJC model, this also produces better evidence for civil and criminal cases. Albuquerque, New Mexico, has set the standard at its center by bringing in its sexual assault examination process right at the center. Now, victims of sexual assault don’t have to go to a hospital or offsite location. They can receive social services, victim assistance, and medical services all in one place. The Valley CARES Family Justice Center in Los Angeles, California, working in partnership with the Los Angeles Police Department, is combining domestic violence services with their sexual assault response team and will have that same powerful combination of services in one place thanks to the financial investment and leadership of Northridge Hospital.

Chaplain’s Programs: Family Justice Centers have also facilitated a discussion on how best to provide spiritual care services to victims of domestic violence. The vision first started in San Diego when Dr. Mickey Stonier, a local pastor and fire department chaplain challenged us to understand that spiritual care is one of the greatest needs of trauma victims whether the trauma is from a natural disaster, a terror attack, or domestic violence. We quickly found that if victims were offered the support of a chaplain, they would take it. The traditional approach in domestic violence organizations to “refer” victims to their own faith community was not meeting the need. Rev. David Kitts, in Knoxville, Tennessee, has really helped move the vision forward. He revealed that victims may often be getting “referred” back to a pastor, priest, or rabbi who knows nothing about domestic violence. Her abuser is likely in the same church or parish. And she may already be facing victim blaming from her spiritual leader because she is “not a good enough wife” or “does not respect her husband” or is unwilling to “submit” to his leadership in her life.

Cultural Competency: Family Justice Centers often shine in the arena of cultural competency and diversity by bringing together diverse community partner agencies that represent the diversity of a community. When you bring in multiple agencies representing all disciplines and all cultural and ethnic groups within a community you begin to have a collaborative that represents the entire community. While processes and procedures are still necessary to build respect, communication, and partnership among such diverse partners, there is a solid foundation when the collaborative represents the diversity of the entire community.


Well-run Family Justice Centers lead to homicide reductions, higher levels of accountability for abusers, better services for children exposed to violence, high levels of satisfaction from survivors, better innovation, and more effective coordinated community response. Police and law enforcement executives across the United States should be learning more about the Family Justice Center model, reaching out to the National Family Justice Center Alliance to get help in starting such centers, and advocating for more local community-based agencies to join them in the life and death struggle to reduce family violence in America.9 ♦

1 The Family Justice Center movement is a broad-based effort to bring services under one roof with key partnerships and involvement from law enforcement agencies, prosecutors, civil attorneys, advocates, and others. The National Family Justice Center Alliance leads this effort out of its San Diego-based offices. For more information, go to (accessed August 7, 2013).
2 Carrie Petrucci, Final Evaluation Results: Phase II California Family Justice Center Initiative Statewide Evaluation, National Family Justice Center Alliance, July 2013, (Accessed August 12, 2013).
3 Ellen Pence, interview by Casey Gwinn, March 29, 2010, (accessed July 26, 2013).
4 Craig Kingsbury, interview by Rebecca Lovelace, July 25, 2013.
5 Petrucci, Final Evaluation Results.
6 Nadia Davis-Lockyer, Alameda County FJC 2008 Report (Oakland, Calif.: Alameda County Family Justice Center, June 2008),; and Petrucci, Final Evaluation Results.
7 Lisa Growette Bostaph, Nampa Family Justice Center 2010 Outcome Evaluation (Boise, Ill.: Boise State University, January 2010), (accessed August 12, 2013). These impacts should not be surprising. Victim-witness programs in prosecutor’s offices across the United States were developed based on clear evidence that stronger support for victims and witnesses of crime would make it easier for them to participate in the prosecution of criminal offenders.
8 Casey Gwinn with Gael Strack, Dream Big: A Simple, Complicated Way to Stop Family Violence (Tucson, Ariz.: Wheatmark Press, 2010).
9 Gael Strack and Casey Gwinn, Dream Big, Start Small: How to Start and Sustain a Family Justice Center (San Diego, Calif.: National Family Justice Center Alliance, 2012).

San Diego Police Chief Bill Lansdowne has served as chief since 2003 and has a 40-year history of proactive, community-oriented approaches to crime prevention.

Casey Gwinn is the president of the National Family Justice Center Alliance and served for 8 years as the elected City Attorney of San Diego.

Join law enforcement executives and criminal justice system leaders from across the country and around the world in San Diego from April 2-4, 2014, for the 14th Annual International Family Justice Conference to learn more about the Family Justice Center movement!

Get more information at, stay at the San Diego Bay Hilton, and visit the nationally recognized San Diego Family Justice Center.

Please cite as:

Bill Lansdowne and Casey Gwinn, "Lifesaving Leadership to Break the Cycle of Family Violence: Partnerships between Law Enforcement and Communities," The Police Chief 80 (October 2013): 32–38.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXX, no. 10, October 2013. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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