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Police Attitudes, Lack of Training Hamper Fight Against Sex Crimes

Sept. 17, 2008 — Efforts to address sex crimes and domestic violence are hampered by a lack of training and indifferent attitudes by police officers, an expert on the issues told a small crowd on St. John Wednesday evening.
Although the Community Forum on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault was called to provide information to Iris Kern, a special assistant on those issues to the police commissioner and attorney general, Kern also provided information to the few people who attended. The forum was held at the Legislature building.
"Several police officers told me they wanted to do a good job, but they were pressured by their colleagues," she said.
The attorney general's office on St. Thomas has only one attorney who specializes in domestic violence and sexual assault cases, Kern said. St. Croix has none, but a changing roster of staff attorneys handles the cases, she said.
Kern put the number of domestic violence and sexual assault cases at 25 to 33 percent of the attorney general's office caseload.
Attending the forum were Kern; her husband, Bill Needham; Lynn Spencer, director of the V.I. Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Council; and Paul Jordan. Jordan represented the Animal Care Center of St. John's board of directors, but also spoke about information he's learned as a member of St. John Rescue.
Kern is gathering information to recommend policy changes on domestic violence and sexual assault issues.
"There's no way to consider changing policies without considering how people feel," Kern said.
Kern has already completed 78 interviews with police officers, prosecutors, judges, advocates and health-care providers to learn their thoughts on services to domestic violence and sexual assault victims.
When Kern asked those at the forum about problems they've observed in the domestic violence and sexual assault assistance system, Jordan said it's an issue getting police to fill out reports and provide follow up.
"The closer they are to shift change, the less likely they are to fill out a report," Jordan said.
Several people spoke about the need for training, but Spencer said the training done in the police department varies by district. Police officers recently received their first domestic violence and sexual assault training in seven years, Kern said.
Rape kits used to take evidence from rape victims usually have parts that have expired use-by dates, Kern said. She also said there are gaps in reporting rapes, because some cases are handled by private physicians who are not obliged by law to report them.
After Kern asked how the advocates in various services organizations function, Susan Mann said there needs to be less turnover. A lot of resources go into training staff advocates, but "people come and go," said Mann, who said she represented St. John's Tradewinds newspaper. Because of the turnover, she said, people who are just learning the ropes are thrust into critical situations.
Jordan spoke about the correlation between animal abuse and child abuse and domestic violence.
"Animal abuse is not just the result of a minor personality flaw in the abuser, but a symptom of a deep disturbance," he said.
An Australian study showed that 100 percent of sexual homicide offenders had a history of animal cruelty, Jordan said. He told a grim anecdote: A boy who stopped to pet Jordan's puppy some years ago told him that his family had had some puppies, but his father held them down while his uncle drove his car over them.
Kern will hold a similar Community Forum at 5:30 p.m. Friday at the Lutheran Church of the Reformation on St. Thomas. No date has been set for a St. Croix forum.
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