Special Reports

Domestic violence awareness must be communitywide, advocates say

The police department is a small part of the picture when it comes to helping victims of abuse, say domestic violence experts from across the country.

"The only way this works is if it's a community-based program," said Renae Griggs, a former police officer who created the National Police Family Violence Prevention Project in Winter Haven, Fla. "You can't just educate the department, you have to educate the community."

The community needs to understand and believe that violence within a family is not a private matter, but a crime, she said. And the community also needs to believe that law enforcement will act on allegations.

"The other good thing about stretching the education out communitywide is that you enlarge the circle of educated observers," Griggs said. "They recognize the signs. You broaden everyone's visions. You open the door a whole lot wider for someone to say, 'This is something that we need to get in the middle of.'

"Also, when you have a community response, in addition to building a circle around the offender, you also build a circle of support around the victim."

That's necessary because victims of domestic abuse often have been isolated by their abusers and have few or no friends left to talk to. When they go public, they might feel there will be no one on their side, Griggs said.

If friends or neighbors believe help is available, they'll be more likely to tell that to victims, she said.

Other community resources are vital as well.

While having domestic violence advocates working for the police department is a good idea, some victims won't go near anything associated with police, said Leslie Landis, head of the Chicago mayor's office on domestic violence.

"There's a whole group of wives and girlfriends of police officers who will never go to Jan" Russell," the Chicago Police Department's victims' advocate, Landis said. Those women are just too fearful of the department, and don't want to risk having their boyfriends or husbands lose their jobs, she said.

Those women need independent counselors who can help them, she said. In Chicago, that's provided by an independent agency called Life Span; in Tacoma, there are a number of independent advocacy groups, including the statewide domestic violence hot line, 1-800-562-6025.

In New Jersey, a couple is working to create legislation that would order police departments to perform psychological evaluations of all officers every five years. The proposal has stalled in the state Legislature because of the expense to police departments. The proposal was prompted by a Dover Township, N.J., officer who shot and killed five people and then himself last year. Officer Edward Lutes' behavior had become erratic in the months before the shootings, but nothing had been done to evaluate his mental stability.