By Thomas Oetinger, Chief of Police, Laconia, New Hampshire; and Chair, IACP Victim Services Committee
magine doing business with a service provider who during a meeting makes it clear that you, the consumer, are not the profession’s top priority. Or bringing your automobile in for service and having the mechanic spend his entire day engaged with a tool salesperson rather than in diagnosing and repairing your vehicle’s problem. Or hiring a plumber to fix a leaky faucet, only to find the plumber more interested in explaining to you why you caused the problem and how you can avoid this issue in your other spigots. Or retaining a law firm on a civil matter and discovering that the practice has been focusing most of their attention on assisting the other party in the dispute. Faced with any of these situations, most consumers would seek an alternative provider, one who took their concerns seriously and devoted their time and energy to resolving the problem. But what if they couldn’t? What if that mechanic, plumber, or attorney were the only resource available?
This situation arises thousands of times every day throughout the United States for victims of crime. Even though crimes involving violence or the loss of property affect over 30 million people in the United States every year, just a small percentage of these individuals and family members obtain the services they need to manage the stress that develops upon falling victim to crime. These citizens, the principal “consumers” of the services provided by the criminal justice system, frequently have nowhere else to turn. Crime victims involuntarily become caught up in a system that is complex and slow and that directs the bulk of its resources toward perpetrators. It is little wonder that victims of crime often feel confused, angered, and dissatisfied by the justice system.
Focus on the Offender
There can be little argument that law enforcement indisputably focuses on the offender. As policing in the United States has evolved, the driver behind many of the philosophical, strategic, and technological developments has been increased apprehension rates. And although the efforts to integrate the community problem-oriented policing model into many agencies over the last 30 years has increased citizen involvement in reducing incidents of crime and disorder, a significant emphasis on deterring or apprehending criminals remains.
Recent promising advances in the philosophy of restorative justice, in which the offender is tasked with the challenge of making reparations to individual victims and the broader community, has encouraged the involvement of crime victims; unfortunately, however, the application of this philosophy is not widespread, and in most cases involvement of the police is quite limited. Most police organizations today dedicate only a small fraction of their available resources to meeting the needs of crime victims.
The rationale for the disproportionate allocation of resources in policing is not difficult to understand. The justice system in general has focused on the goal of successful apprehension, prosecution, adjudication, punishment, and reformation of criminals. The metrics of police work, statistics by which police chiefs all too often live and die, measure crime rates and the percentages of apprehensions and convictions. Technological advances have been geared toward keeping officers safe, enhancing investigative efforts to collect and examine evidence, streamlining processes, improving communications, or storing and analyzing data. Financial constraints further refine agency priorities. Historically, the relationship between police and victim advocates has not been a positive one, limiting educational and collaborative efforts. Finally, within the police culture itself, concern for victims’ needs has not been a high priority.
Even today chiefs do not rate highly the importance of meeting even the most basic needs of crime victims. In a 2005 Police Chief magazine readership survey, “victim services” ranked 15th out of 21 article topics about which subscribers would be interested in reading in future issues.1 Chiefs face a series of ever-changing priorities, most of which have fiscal, legal, or political origins. Improved victim services rarely fall into one of these categories, and as a result, chiefs tend too often to direct their focus elsewhere. Although some police leaders across the country have made the support of victims a priority and developed within their organizations a broad array of services for crime victims and their families, clearly there is a great deal more that needs to be accomplished to ensure the rights of these victims.
Equitable Attention to the Victim
Over the last decade there has evolved an increasing understanding and acceptance that in order to completely accomplish their mission, police service agencies must provide equitable attention to the needs of their primary constituency: the victims of the crimes they investigate. The 1990s saw a rise in studies, articles, and programs designed to seek broader insight and provide integrated services to crime victims. Many of these efforts were supported and funded by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Victims of Crime. The IACP entered into this conversation in a noteworthy manner in 1999, when the organization conducted a national Summit on Victims of Crime. At this summit the needs of crime victims were classified according to seven general components: safety, access, information, support, continuity, voice, and justice.2
More recently, the IACP has engaged in an ambitious project to develop a comprehensive and systemic model for providing victim services through all aspects of a police organization. The Enhancing Law Enforcement Response to Victims project has been in development for three years, including field testing in three pilot agencies: the Charlotte–Mecklenburg County, North Carolina; Beaverton, Oregon; and Mundelein, Illinois, police departments. The purpose of the project is to integrate the professional care and support of crime victims into all elements of their contact with the police while encouraging collaboration with victim advocates and the broader community. A complete description of this project’s evolution and goals can be found in a corresponding article in this issue (see pages 44–50).
Making Integral Change
Agencies looking to substantially expand the assistance provided to crime victims, making this service integral to their mission, may wish to look toward the evolution and development of community problem-oriented policing. When community policing gained popularity among police administrators, many agencies enacted a variety of “programs” that were intended to usher in this new philosophy. It was not unusual when asking the administrator of a municipal police department if they “did community policing” for the chief to answer, “Absolutely—we have bike patrols, neighborhood substations, and cop cards.” We recognize now that, while having good intentions, these chiefs were missing the point. In order to be truly effective, community policing could not be solely programmatic in nature. This philosophy needs to be a substantial characteristic of the organization’s stated mission and vision, integrated into all aspects of the organization. It has to be understood and practiced by both sworn officers and civilian employees working with a broad spectrum of external partners and having specific, measurable goals that are focused on solving issues of concern to the community.
Victim services, performed effectively, must follow the same course. Simply creating an advocate or victim service specialist position within an agency is not enough. If the entire organization is not driven to place a high priority on the needs of crime victims, from the communication specialist through the initial responding uniformed officer to the investigator who conducts the follow-up, then advocates’ efforts will often be belated and insufficient. Police departments enjoying even the best of relationships with victim assistance organizations and domestic-violence advocates frequently find that the unintentional indifference police employees show victims, before their advocates can be notified and get involved, causes harm to the very individuals that departments are charged with protecting.
As with community policing, in order to effect substantial and meaningful improvement in victim services, the change has to be both strategic and systemic. Visionary leaders constantly examine their agencies and ask three questions:
- Are we currently addressing the needs of the community?
- Are we effective in our efforts?
- How can we adjust our current practices to better address existing or anticipated issues?
Such police leaders are continually developing new methods of measuring efficacy, then turning to well-respected police leadership organizations and forward-thinking agencies to evaluate contemporary best practices that may better address the community’s needs. “Business as usual” is a phrase seldom heard in organizations with this form of leadership.
Meaningful improvement in victim services requires planning. It requires making an honest assessment of the services and resources an agency currently allocates to supporting victims of crime, which involves asking the right questions. Are these services programmatic in nature, or are they put into practice in all facets of the organization? The outcome of investigative processes, while properly focused on successful apprehension and prosecution of offenders, must also take victim needs into consideration.
Crime victims who feel that the investigating agency is responsive to their needs are more meaningfully involved in the investigative process and more cooperative. This improved relationship both facilitates solving the crime and assists in the healing process for the victim. Does existing agency policy consistently support the goal of providing better service? The desire to support victims must be both intentional and in writing. Do employees understand the nature of the injuries and stress inflicted on victims, or is additional training needed? Most police officers are empathetic to people who have been victimized, but they often fail to understand the nature and degree of distress that victims experience, even victims of what can be considered “minor” crimes. Does the investigating agency have an optimal relationship with advocacy and service provider organizations, so that they can provide a seamless transition of assistance to victims? Improving cooperation often takes a mutual examination of each agency’s goals and policies. During this examination, both organizations must come to an understanding that they sometimes have contrasting priorities, but collaborative strategies and efforts will always yield better results.
Performance assessment surveys provided to recent crime victims can provide insight into how much an agency does to help victims in general. Securing victim participation in these assessments can be challenging, especially since victims who felt they received inadequate police assistance may be reluctant to reopen old wounds; however, the information gleaned from these assessment instruments is worth the effort—and sometimes surprising. Chiefs who believe that their agency has been adequately meeting victims’ needs are occasionally stunned at the results of such surveys.
Clearly, the best methods for improving services to crime victims are holistic in their approach. An entire police organization must make the needs of victims a priority, and this concern must resonate in all elements of organizational processes. In practical terms, every level of an agency must ensure an understanding and the ability to mitigate in some way the injuries inflicted on crime victims. This ideal frequently requires a reengineering of the agency’s approach to investigating crime. However, officers who believe that they are already overburdened and lack the time to attend to “one more assignment” may resist such a change. This obstacle is genuine and must not be ignored. All employees, from senior management to support personnel, must be involved in the process. Remember, substantive changes need not be focused on new programs or additional tasks. It should be made clear to everyone that improving victim services does not mean asking officers to do more; rather, it involves requiring them to keep victims in mind, responding to victim needs as officers go about their duties, and changing the agency’s internal processes so that it becomes easier for officers to accomplish this goal.
Significantly improving victim services may require additional resources, which in times of increasing budgetary constraints can be an uphill battle for police administrators. But even without additional funds, agencies can make great strides to improve their services. Some agencies have adapted the use of trained volunteers to supplement the services already offered by paid personnel and provide an additional layer of support to victims. The IACP’s Volunteers in Police Service program offers substantial policy support and examples of how to put volunteers to good use in this area.3
Crime victims are the primary consumers of police services and should be treated accordingly. Unlike with the local mechanic, plumber, or attorney, these consumers often have nowhere else to turn but to their local police department. Their losses are too often emotional as well as physical and monetary, leaving permanent though frequently invisible scars and adversely affecting the way they lead their lives. Police leaders have a duty to see that their agencies are responsive to victims’ needs, properly attending to those whom we have a direct obligation to protect.■
1“Findings,” in 2005 Reader Profile: The Police Chief (Stillwater, Minn.: Readex Research, 2005), 35.
2See International Association of Chiefs of Police, What Do Victims Want? Effective Strategies to Achieve Justice for Victims of Crime (Alexandria, Va.: IACP, 2000), http://www.theiacp.org/documents/pdfs/Publications/WhatDoVictimsWantSummitReport.pdf (accessed August 15, 2007).
3See “Reducing the Pain: How Law Enforcement Utilizes Volunteers in Victim Services,” Volunteers in Police Service (VIPS) in Focus, http://www.policevolunteers.org/PDF/ACF352C.pdf (accessed August 14, 2007).