Transitions: Responding to the Needs of Domestic Violence Victims

Article excerpt

Over the years, various crimes have demanded law enforcement attention. Drugs, violent crime, and domestic violence all have pulled the focus of police departments, law makers, and society alike. In many cases, the law enforcement response to these types of crimes has changed.

Just as many police departments have done, the Cheektowaga, New York, Police Department identified domestic violence as a priority. The department developed a proarrest policy and provided extensive training to its 125-officer force. Yet, 10 years later, a significant number of officers misunderstood the department's domestic violence initiatives. In fact, the department seemed to have developed a culture that remained unresponsive to the needs of the victims and families of domestic violence. Discovering this through surveys, training evaluations, and verbal feedback from the officers, the department immediately set out to improve the officers' understanding, attitudes, and behavior.

MISUNDERSTANDING THE NATURE OF DOMESTIC VIOLENCE

In a home fractured by domestic violence, offenders seek power and control over their victims. Thus, when an officer exhibits biased or hostile attitudes or controlling behavior, whether intentional or not, victims can view the officer's behavior as no different than that of the offender. Some victims withdraw under these circumstances; others become highly emotional. No one's needs are served in a discourse of this nature. The department does not develop sufficient information to prosecute the offender. The victim feels further victimized and becomes less likely to report future incidents of violence. When attitude problems become a barrier to the effective delivery of services to the victim, the cycle of violence continues.

MAKING THE TRANSITION

To address these concerns, the Cheektowaga Police Department entered into a joint endeavor with Haven House, the local battered women's shelter, and the National Conference, a human relations organization dedicated to recognizing diversity and combating prejudice. Because of its dual roles of moving the department to a new way of responding to domestic violence and helping victims transcend their abusers, the project was christened Transitions. Its objectives included:

* Dispelling invalid myths about victims of domestic violence that officers may harbor

* Increasing the interpersonal and communication skills of responding officers

* Reducing bias and discrimination by officers toward victims

* Increasing officers' ability to recognize the violent human dynamics in domestic scenarios

* Developing data identifying areas for growth and improvement.

In light of these objectives, the partners decided to focus the majority of the training on addressing attitude issues and the misconceptions held by the officers because these seemed to be the root cause of some of the communication problems between officers and domestic violence victims. Training was offered to all of the department's officers, emergency dispatchers, and civilian personnel, as well as to police officers from other local agencies. In all, 300 public safety employees attended the Transitions conference.

DESIGNING THE PROGRAM

The project director designed the initial framework for the 2-day program; however, all members of the police department, both sworn and unsworn, as well as the community partners, selected the training topics and scenarios by responding to a written survey. The survey listed a number of domestic violence-related topics - such as interviewing techniques. officer safety, and the signs of domestic violence from which the respondents could choose. The top issues then provided the curriculum for the program.

Next, a core group of 15 representatives of the department - including police officers, detectives. captains. lieutenants, sergeants, civilian clerks, and public safety dispatchers - met with the presenters and discussed the format and content of the training. …