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Victim Services in Rural Law Enforcement
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North Carolina: Cherokee County Sheriff's Office

Cherokee County is in the Smoky Mountain range in western North Carolina. It is within a 2-hour drive of Asheville, North Carolina; Atlanta, Georgia; and Chattanooga, Tennessee. It covers 466 square miles with an average of 53 persons per square mile and has a significant amount of National Forest Service land. The county consists of the towns of Murphy and Andrews, the community of Brasstown, and eight smaller communities.

The estimated population of 26,309 (2006) is 95 percent White; it has grown by about 2,000 since 2000. The median household income is $30,177, and 15 percent of residents live in poverty. Of residents 25 years of age and over, 11 percent have a college degree. The Cherokee County Sheriff's Office has a sheriff, lieutenant, chief deputy, 12 deputies, 5 investigators, 15 detention officers, 2 victim advocates, and 4 administrative staff.

The Cherokee County Sheriff's Office created a Victim Advocate Program (VAP) to positively affect its ability to meet the needs of crime victims, particularly victims of domestic violence. VAP staff offered services such as on-scene crisis counseling, information and referrals, hospital and court accompaniment, aid with compensation applications, and overall case coordination. They acted as liaisons between law enforcement deputies and crime victims. During the grant period, VAP served 1,420 victims.

Initially, a program administrator was hired as the sole staff member, responsible for serving victims and developing and implementing the program. The administrator conducted a community needs assessment to identify gaps in victim services. To build a strong program infrastructure, she designed a database to track victim contact, legal case information, and program statistics. She drafted protocols for incorporating her duties into existing law enforcement practices and met with the sheriff to discuss unveiling the program to deputies. The sheriff released a memorandum to announce VAP to office personnel. Three key outreach activities helped launch the program:

  • Gaining deputies' acceptance of the program. The administrator rode along with deputies to learn about their duties and show them how the presence of a victim advocate could make their jobs easier. Under the sheriff's direction, deputies were mandated to call for assistance from a victim advocate when responding to serious crimes. Over time, investigators increasingly called VAP for victim assistance.
  • Fostering collaboration with local agencies. When introducing VAP to local agencies, the administrator demonstrated how the program could help fill gaps in serving victims without duplicating existing services. As a result of networking, she became involved in numerous boards and collaborative projects. Involvement in these efforts eased the way for VAP to coordinate services across agencies.
  • Using the media to introduce VAP to the community. The administrator secured coverage for the program in local newspapers continuously over the grant period. She became adept at generating press releases and articles. She also was able to get two OVC-sponsored public service announcements aired on local television stations during prime-time evening hours.

In time, an additional part-time staff person was hired and a Volunteer Victim Advocate Response Team was created to allow the program to provide services 24/7. Volunteers were recruited from criminal justice and social service agencies, completed 6 hours of training, observed sheriff's office dispatchers at work, and rode along with deputies. Each volunteer specialized in a specific type of victimization to strengthen overall team capabilities. The sheriff provided the team with two unmarked cars and radios. Team members received uniform shirts, designated radio call numbers, a response bag containing literature for victims, a digital camera, stuffed animals for children, a road finder, and business cards. There were 15 volunteers at the end of the grant. VAP also benefited from college student interns who assisted in the office and served as court watchers. The local high school recently started a similar internship program for seniors.

In addition to assisting individual victims, VAP worked more broadly to enhance several areas of criminal justice system response to victims. It trained deputies and other local law enforcement officers on filing incident reports in domestic violence cases. The sheriff's office initiated a procedure in which all domestic violence incidents were to be reported for further investigation, with reports sent to VAP. VAP encouraged the district attorney's office to proceed with evidence-based prosecutions. It developed an on-call process for victims so they didn't have to sit in court waiting for their cases to be called. Improved law enforcement response to domestic violence has meant more solid cases are referred for prosecution.

The sheriff agreed to cover maintenance expenses for program vehicles and absorbed the two victim advocate positions into his budget.