D.C. police are seeking volunteers to ride with patrol officers on domestic violence calls to help victims learn about counseling services and programs to guide them through the judicial system.
Authorities hope that delivering information quickly will encourage more victims to pursue criminal charges or get assistance they need. The volunteers will be able to provide victims with instant answers and, in dire cases, access to shelters or to doctors.
"We are increasing our capacity to reach more clients," said Natalia Otero, executive director of the nonprofit group DC SAFE, which helps people battered in relationships. She said it's not enough to simply hand victims cards with numbers to call and expect them to follow through.
Under the new program, victims "will feel that there are multiple people in the process who love me, who want to provide me security and want to make me safe," Otero said.
Police have begun advertising for volunteers through social media. People who sign up will receive 20 hours of training from DC SAFE instructors and from police.
"Volunteers will not act as law enforcement personnel or advocates, but rather to be a liaison," the department says in its recruitment ad. "This is an especially great opportunity for college students of all majors who want to gain firsthand experience in law enforcement and victim services." Experts said some victims may find it easier to talk to a volunteer in street clothes than to an officer in uniform.
D.C. police referred questions to DC SAFE. Many police departments around the area have initiatives to assist domestic violence victims and to try to prevent such abuse, including identifying signs that violence could escalate.
A counselor with the Prince George's County Sheriff's Office developed a program called Stay In Touch, which helps domestic violence victims rebuild their lives and find alternatives to returning to dangerous relationships.
The program is run through the county's Family Justice Center, which opened in 2016 after several high-profile homicides and murder-suicides attributed to domestic strife. The center offers a place where victims can get help in all the services offered, including housing, legal and financial services. It also offers free child care.
Prince George's County Chief Assistant Sheriff Darrin C. Palmer said getting information quickly into the hands of abuse victims is crucial to encouraging people to seek services.
"Oftentimes the victims will try to step out of the process," Palmer said. "They won't be in that state of feeling immediate danger and will try to give it one more chance. Getting them the information and resources right away, I think, is very beneficial to help them prepare."
Sheriff's deputies in Prince George's serve protective orders filed after domestic disputes, putting them in routine contact with suspected abusers and victims. In most cases, civilian employees follow up after a service call with information on programs and conduct interviews to assess whether additional violence is likely and more intervention is needed.
D.C. police are trying to speed that process even more by bringing information to the victim even as police investigate.
Otero said the idea came from a small pilot program in 2009 in which DC SAFE advocates paired with police officers in areas with the highest call volumes for domestic abuse. "We found it extremely useful," she said. "It created a whole other layer of support."
DC SAFE advocates receive more training than the volunteers being sought for the new program, which could be implemented this fall. The group's advocates, like psychiatrists, can talk privately with victims and cannot be forced to reveal the conversation to police or in court.
DC SAFE advocates can get clients into shelters immediately, or set them up with counselors or other services. "We're linking up the client who might otherwise decline services," Otero said. "It's amazing how many high-risk victims decline even medical services when they clearly need it."
The advocates also work with police conducting what are called lethality reviews, assessing victims for potential future violence and interceding before there is serious violence or even a homicide.
Otero said there are not enough advocates to hit the streets with police officers. The new volunteers, while handing out literature, will be able to reach advocates to get quick help for victims when needed. Otero said just providing immediate information to victims, instead of hoping they will follow up later, has been proved to work.
Even if the job sounds routine, the volunteers will find themselves responding to some of the most dangerous calls police officers get and will be dealing with some of the most vulnerable and scared victims.
"We are looking for volunteers who have some knowledge of the dynamics of domestic violence, are interested in the field of social work, criminal justice or have an interest in or experience with working with an underprivileged population," Otero said. "It's definitely not for the faint of heart."
Lynh Bui contributed to this report.