Victim Advocacy: The Softer Side of Law Enforcement

Victim Advocacy: The Softer Side of Law Enforcement
Posted on 10/05/2016

By Councilman Mike Peterson

When I think of any local police department, I think of 911, protection, badges, and catching the bad guys.  I think of Cottonwood Heights’ outstanding police department full of dedicated officers who keep our community safe. It’s comforting to know we have response times for high priority calls that average approximately three minutes. Our city also has one of the lowest crime rates in the state. Since serving on the City Council, I’ve discovered there is so much more to what these men and women do for our community. It’s the many other services they provide to our citizens that truly set them apart. One of those services is our victim advocacy program under the direction of Victim Advocate Nicole Huntsman. 

For many victims, it can be very difficult to reach out for help. Victim advocates offer information, support, and helpful services. Victims are often relieved to know that agencies in their community want to make sure they are safe and can provide the help they need to recover from the impact of a crime. One of the most common areas of crime that calls for specialized help is domestic violence. I asked CHPD Chief Robby Russo how important victim advocacy is. He quickly stated, “One of the highest priorities in the police department is to protect victims of domestic violence. It’s a problem that’s toxic to the family, thus worthy of the resources provided.”

I also asked Huntsman if she would share an example of how the program works and what a typical call might sound like.  She described the following scenario:

A victim calls dispatch and states she is requesting help on a domestic situation. Officers quickly arrive on scene, where the victim speaks with the initial officer. 

“Sally,” (not her actual name) a 24-year-old married woman with two children has been injured. She has multiple bruises. Her left eye is swollen shut, her cheek is swollen and she refuses to go to the hospital.   

After speaking in private, Sally explains that due to financial restraints, she cannot go to the hospital. The officer explains to Sally that there’s an application for assistance available to victims of crimes and it’s accepted by most hospitals, so she can be treated without requiring initial payment. 

Sally agrees to go to the hospital but does not want to call a relative or friend and expose herself to their opinions when she is so vulnerable and needs time to think. The victim advocate offers to take her to the hospital and watch the children while she is being examined.

Now she wants to know what to do when her "significant other" is released from custody. Legal aid assistance is explained, the location to obtain services, and information for obtaining a protective order at no cost are provided.

Sally asks where she can go if her partner is released from custody and there is no protective order in place. The victim advocate makes calls to numerous domestic violence safe houses throughout the valley until she finds one that has a room available.  If no rooms are available, alternative emergency funding is secured to place her in a hotel. Transportation is also provided, if necessary.

This all happens within the first few hours following a domestic violence call.  There are then days, weeks, and even months of follow up to support the victim. There are better outcomes when the victim knows of the choices available to them. 

This is just a very brief example of how our victim advocate program works in Cottonwood Heights. It provides a wide variety of services to many who have been negatively affected by a crime. It takes a uniquely qualified person to fulfill the responsibilities of a victim advocate.  Huntsman is one of those individuals well suited for the job.

In 2011, Nicole started volunteering at Unified Police Department and Rape Recovery Center as an advocate. She was part of the Mobile Crisis Unit Hospital Response Team and answered calls for the crisis line. As she continued volunteering, she realized how passionate she was about helping victims.  She spent many sleepless nights on the job, but didn’t care. It was never about the money or sleep, it was about helping, empowering, and giving others hope at their darkest hour.

She eventually worked full time as a victim advocate for West Jordan and was assigned to their city attorney’s office.

Then, the opportunity came to apply for the position in Cottonwood Heights where she could work more closely with local law enforcement. After several interviews she was offered the job.

“I’ve loved every minute of it! I’m one of the lucky ones. I know people who go to work just for the paycheck. They hate the job but they do it because they have to," said Huntsman. "I can honestly say that isn’t the case with me.  Sure I have those days where cases get to me, it’s part of being in this field.  I love what I do and I wouldn’t change it for the world.”

This is one of the many unique services offered by our outstanding police department and we will be forever grateful to those officers and individuals like Nicole who dedicate themselves to assist victims of crime.