"How law enforcement first responds to victims is critical in determining how victims cope, first with the immediate crisis and, later, with their recovery from the crime."2
When law enforcement officers respond to victims in a compassionate manner and connect them with community resources, officers can help victims begin their recovery. A helpful initial and followup response to victims by law enforcement also can increase the likelihood that victims will participate in the investigation and prosecution of the crime.3
Recognizing this critical role, U.S. law enforcement leaders are increasingly integrating victimization issues into officer training and incorporating victim assistance components into their agencies.4 Urban and suburban law enforcement agencies historically have had greater capacity to support victim assistance initiatives than their rural counterparts. Agencies in rural areas can face challenges that make it difficult to create or expand victim services.5 For example6
- Metropolitan communities sometimes expand into rural areas. This can tax existing law enforcement and social service resources.
- Many rural areas have growing ethnically diverse populations. However, they often lack resources to address the cultural, linguistic, and outreach needs of crime victims from these populations.
- Rural areas experiencing population growth may not experience parallel economic growth. Rates of unemployment and poverty in many rural areas are higher than state and national rates. High poverty rates may be accompanied by increased crime and more victims in need of assistance.
- Rural communities often lack sufficient funding for public safety and victim assistance programs. Not only do rural areas have a lower local tax base to fund such programs than urban areas, but comparatively lower crime rates and smaller populations also mean less state and federal funding for victim services.7 Rural law enforcement agencies may lack the infrastructure, such as personnel, policies, equipment, and training, to support victim services. If a prosecution-based victim assistance program exists, services are usually limited to cases tried in court. There are typically few local and regional community-based victim service agencies and providers.
- Many rural law enforcement agencies serve populations dispersed over a large geographic area. Often, only a few officers per shift are responsible for patrolling a significant amount of land. Responding to calls may require officers to travel considerable distances, sometimes through rugged terrain, making timely response all but impossible in some cases.
- Rural residents may find it difficult to access victim services. Rural communities may offer only limited public transportation, phone service, and childcare options. In addition to not being able to afford such services as medical treatment and counseling in the aftermath of a crime, victims may find it challenging to seek help if they lack a vehicle or money for transportation, funds for a babysitter to watch their children, or time-off benefits from work. They also may not live close to services.
- Victims in rural areas may be reluctant to report crimes and use services. Victims may be wary in general of seeking assistance outside their families or social circles and particularly from public agencies. They may be concerned about a lack of anonymity when they report a crime or seek help or that the responding officer will side with the offender if they are friends or relatives. Victims may also be reluctant to report a crime when the person they accuse lives in the same small, tight-knit community, and they can expect to cross paths in the course of their daily lives. These and other reservations can lead to underreporting of crime, making it difficult to form a clear picture of the extent of crime in the area and to obtain funding to deal with the problem.
The rural law enforcement-based victim service programs funded through this grant program provided much needed assistance to a significant number of crime victims. The programs built partnerships with and among local organizations and service providers to connect victims with resources. Not only did these partnerships positively affect victims, they often raised the stature of the law enforcement agency in the community as a champion for victims.
When staff from these programs assisted victims during initial law enforcement response, officers were often able to spend more time on other crime scene duties and quickly move onto other calls. Victim service staff also enhanced case management by working with investigating officers to offer victims assistance and followup information on their cases. The involvement of victim service staff in cases often increased the likelihood that victims would actively participate in the criminal justice process.
This publication explores creative and economical ways for rural law enforcement agencies to meet the needs of victims at the crime scene and during followup contact, despite the barriers.