Police practice: assisting senior victims.
The police officer who responds to the scene takes a report, getting descriptions of the robbers, their vehicle, and the stolen merchandise. For the officer, it is time to move on to the next call for service, but he is reluctant to leave the couple because they are distraught and seem to need further assistance.
Often, older citizens require specialized assistance when they are the victims of a robbery or involved in an auto accident. They might be unfamiliar with how to resolve their problem through the criminal justice system. In the mid- 1980s, the Colorado Springs, Colorado, Police Department created the Senior Victim Assistance Team (SVAT), to respond to this need.
This police practice describes how the Senior Victim Assistance Team, which is staffed by volunteers, works in Colorado Springs. Police administrators who want to establish similar programs in their own departments can take similar measures to ensure positive results.
The team is headed by the casework coordinator, a volunteer who coordinates the team's duties and files reports with the volunteer coordinator. This volunteer coordinator manages the SVAT.
Other committees of team members contribute to SVAT operations. For example, the training committee arranges initial instruction for new members, while the program committee plans monthly training programs. The team also has a social committee to organize informal get-togethers to enhance team cooperation. All committee chairs, as well as the casework coordinator, are nominated by the nominating committee and elected annually by the team's membership.
The team's duties are broadly defined as crisis intervention and referral. Specifically, SVAT exists primarily to aid the senior and to allow the responding officer to get to the next call for service in a timely manner.
SVAT members have assisted at car accident scenes, listened to the fears and frustrations of robbery victims, transported domestic violence victims to a safehouse, and referred seniors to other appropriate agencies, such as a legal aid society or a local senior assistance group. Following the homicide of a 58-year-old tourist, a team member provided emotional support to the bereaved widow until she was able to return home to her family.
The initial training for new SVAT members lasts 40 hours over a 12-week period. New team members then are paired with an experienced member for two weeks.
This comprehensive training provides SVAT members with a basic understanding of community resources. For example, the police department arranges for psychologists to discuss basic counseling and communication skills a geriatric specialist to describe the aging process. and a social worker to speak on domestic violence. Police department personnel provide instruction on law enforcement matters, such as how to use police radios and how the judicial process functions.
Programs at monthly meetings provide ongoing training and updated information for all SVAT members. The local Better Business Bureau, for instance, provides guidance on how to spot scams that target seniors, and a representative from the district attorney's office informs the team about how the Victim Compensation Fund works.
In addition, community agencies that cater to the needs of seniors share their expertise with SVAT members. The phone numbers and contact persons for these agencies have been compiled into a directory that all team members carry with them. In Colorado Springs, this includes phone numbers for hospital emergency rooms, the domestic violence safehouse, the local social security office, crisis hotlines, local senior assistance agencies, the State's department of social services, and many others. Other communities should have their own sets of resources from which to draw.
To be effective, the department expects team members to fulfill a few basic obligations. They must be willing to be on call for a week at a time, around the clock, on a rotating basis. Because of this commitment, members must balance personal schedules with SVAT duties. Most volunteers are retired or have made special arrangements with their employers. With 26 members on the team, this week-long obligation only comes up every 3 months.
The casework coordinator manages the oncall rotation schedules and arranges for backup members to be available to respond. Both the primary and backup members respond to all calls to guard against claims of impropriety.
Initially, SVAT members used their own vehicles to respond to calls. Now, however, the department provides two police vehicles for the team to use. The oncall and backup members also have pagers for immediate contact and police radios for communicating with the dispatcher. The team prides itself on a response time of 20 minutes or less.
Those members who are not on call go to police headquarters to review reports on auto accidents that involve seniors. The casework coordinator also assigns this responsibility on a rotating basis. SVAT members phone the victims to advise them of Colorado's report filing requirements and to ask if they need help preparing the reports
For other cases, such as robbery or assault, volunteers might assist with paperwork or guide victims through the court process. If necessary, SVAT members will follow up later to make sure that the seniors are getting the kind of community or family support necessary to normalize their lives. Frequently, volunteers simply provide some consolation and a sympathetic ear.
To help administer the program, team members must record the mileage of the car they use, tally the hours they donate, and file incident reports with the casework coordinator. With this information, adjustments can be made to improve the team's responsiveness and effectiveness. For example, the SVAT used mileage records to document the need for a second team vehicle.
Starting a Senior Victim Assistance Team
A team such as this can form the beginning of a police volunteer program or be incorporated into an existing one. In either case, once police administrators have decided that their departments need to provide further assistance to the community's elderly citizens, they should take several steps.
Administrators first should outline the department's needs and expectations to determine exactly what team members will do. A good way to start is by reviewing complaints and comments from seniors who have used the department's services or have been through the court system. What needs have they expressed? How could a volunteer facilitate their interaction with the department?
Second, the department must be both willing and able to provide the resources necessary to make the team a success. Department staff members will have to plan and implement training classes, produce guides to community agencies, and secure radios and pagers for the team's use. Although unnecessary in the beginning stages, cars marked with the department's logo eventually might be desirable for team members to use.
Once the team's duties have been established and the resources to support it have been acquired, the department must describe the qualifications for team membership. While most of the Colorado Springs' volunteers are retired, this is not a prerequisite. More important are the desire and commitment to help seniors and the willingness to go through training. SVAT volunteers must have a valid driver's license and be able to communicate clearly and effectively.
Next, the department must recruit volunteers. Members can be recruited from the families of police officers, referrals by department personnel, and from local senior agencies or groups. The number of volunteers needed depends on how often they will be used. To estimate this figure, administrators can question patrol officers to determine how often they would refer a senior citizen to the team. Colorado Springs, a town of 350,000 citizens, averages one call per day. In addition, the team averages 90 monthly follow-up calls to check on the progress and/or recovery of the victim. Twenty-six team members handle the work load.
Once the team is in place. members need to nominate and elect a casework coordinator and a chairperson for each of the various committees. Department personnel should make themselves available to answer questions and provide assistance as the team gets started, develops its training, and establishes its procedures and schedules. In addition, administrators should advise patrol officers of the role the team will play and ask for their help in using the team.
Finally, the team's activities should be monitored through status reports and periodic meetings. Department administrators should be open to making changes and improvements as needed.
Not all senior citizens need or want an extensive amount of assistance. Some elderly victims only need to be pointed in the right direction, while others prefer more direct assistance. For those who do, SVAT is there to help. Within reason, SVAT volunteers will do as much or as little as the senior requires.
The team's experience also has shown the importance of protecting the volunteers' privacy. Team members are strongly advised not to take victims home with them or to give victims their home phone numbers. If seniors need to contact volunteers, they can use the police dispatch number.
In addition to helping elderly crime victims and freeing patrol officers to respond to other calls for service, the Senior Victim Assistance Team increases the department's interaction with the community. At a time when law enforcement agencies nationwide are emphasizing community involvement, SVAT provides one more avenue for developing positive relationships with citizens and enhancing the department's efficiency.
Members of the team also stand to gain from their involvement in this program. They benefit from the knowledge that they provide an important service and make a difference in the lives of people experiencing a crisis. Many members of the Colorado Springs team are retired and/or disabled; they have a genuine empathy for the plight of other elderly people who might be unfamiliar with the judicial process.
SVAT volunteers also become well informed about their community and its resources. This knowledge increases their sense of belonging and their confidence in dealing with people in need.
The Colorado Springs Senior Victim Assistance Team has been recognized for its achievements. In December 1992, President George Bush honored the team with the 973rd Daily Point of Light, a program the President created to recognize outstanding volunteer groups. The framed medal hangs on a red, white, and blue ribbon in the volunteer services area of the police operations center. It serves as a daily reminder that the police department and volunteers can work together to provide vital services and improve the life of the community.
It does not matter whether a municipality has a modest population of mature citizens or an abundance; they will welcome and use a Senior Victim Assistance Team. Police departments can increase their efficiency and simultaneously provide senior citizens with another avenue for assistance.
Ms. Bliss serves as a reserve police officer with the Colorado Springs, Colorado, Police Department.
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|Publication:||The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin|
|Date:||Feb 1, 1996|
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