Crime & Courts

Get more cops, 911 staff, court security to fight domestic violence, local study says

Foto de archivo.
Foto de archivo. The Wichita Eagle

Wichita agencies should provide more to protect victims of domestic and sexual violence. And that means:

More — and better-paid — 911 staff.

More — and less-strained — patrol officers. And more — and less-overworked — detectives.

A more safe and sensible setting for people seeking protective orders.

Domestic and sexual violence comprises a big part of the Wichita Police Department workload. In 2016, the DV-sex crimes unit received 10,090 case reports.

The recommendations are among 14 “gaps” identified in a newly released, comprehensive study of how domestic and sexual violence is handled in Wichita and Sedgwick County.

The study noted positive findings as well. Some people, for example, said that police were “quick, diligent,” that advocates were compassionate and that a prosecutor was understanding and respectful.

Others shared experiences where they felt the system fell short. One said of the 911 system: “They don’t take you seriously.” Another person related: “Told by police if you don’t calm down, we’re going to take you to jail.”

The study, which covers Wichita and Sedgwick County, is called the Domestic & Sexual Violence Community Safety Assessment Report. Members of local agencies involved in handling domestic and sexual violence began working on the report in July 2017 and completed it in July 2018.

The study team includes representatives of Ascension Via Christi Forensic Nursing, Catholic Charities, City of Wichita attorney’s office, Kansas Coalition Against Sexual & Domestic Violence, Newman University, Sedgwick County District Attorney’s Office, Sedgwick County Division of Emergency Communications, Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office, StepStone, Wichita Area Sexual Assault Center, Wichita Family Crisis Center and the Wichita Police Department.

The team has scheduled a media briefing on the study for 10 a.m. Friday.

The team finished the report just a few months months before one of the most devastating cases of domestic violence in Sedgwick County.

On Oct. 6, Randy “Rocky” Gile ran his estranged wife, Kristin Florio-Gile, off the road near Derby. He shot and killed her, then turned a gun on himself.

The Eagle reported that the 33-year-old Wichita man murdered his wife — mother of their six young children — after she took repeated steps to protect herself and her children. She had called police when he threatened her with a gun. She had moved. She had filed for protective orders. Although Wichita police had an order to arrest Gile if they could find him, he stayed free, out on bond, long enough to kill her.

Her family said the system failed her.

In the just released study, here are some of the 14 “gaps” identified in the system:

More 911 dispatchers - The county’s Division of Emergency Communications, which takes 911 calls, is understaffed to handle the workload needed to respond to domestic and sexual violence.

The report blamed high turnover on low pay, workload stress and a requirement that staff must frequently work overtime. The 911 call takers and dispatchers get paid about the same as office clerical staff. They are underpaid considering the stress and “vicarious trauma” they work under, it says.

The team recommended a pay increase and the ability to hire more staff to meet the workload and pay for overtime.

On Thursday, county spokeswoman Kate Flavin emailed this statement: “Sedgwick County staff has been tracking increasing call volume and community needs through the past five years and has added 15 call taker and dispatch positions within the last three years, including six positions in 2019, to address those growing needs. We will continue to be vigilant in evaluating the needs of our community in relation to staffing levels to address those needs and will continue to request resources when deficiencies are found. “

More police officers - The Wichita police patrol division is understaffed, the report said. It noted that a 2017 study found that the department’s staffing was at levels from “about 10 years ago.” The 2017 study, by Matrix Consulting Group, recommended adding 49 patrol officers and adding four detectives to the department’s domestic violence/sex crimes unit. The new study noted that the “the goal of adding 49 officers to patrol has not been met.”

A Wichita police spokesman declined to comment on the study Thursday but said a representative would attend the briefing on the report Friday.

According to the study, officers “expressed frustration at the minimal staffing, especially on overnight shifts.” The low staffing makes it hard to respond to the complex, sensitive and dangerous nature of domestic and sexual violence, it said.

The patrol staffing problem means that many officers don’t get to take a break or get lunch during their shift, 911 staff told the team.

The team also suggested that a “renewed emphasis on hiring female officers may be helpful.”

More investigators - The police investigations division lacks enough staff to respond. Victims are “uniquely vulnerable” during a criminal investigation because so often the offender lives with or knows where the victim can be found, the report noted.

“Because of this situation,” it said, “timeframe and length of investigation impacts victim risk and safety.”

With nine detectives assigned to the DV/sex crimes unit at the time of the report, it said, “Many of the detectives reported that they come in early, stay late and work weekends to keep up.”

Detectives also cited high turnover.

The team recommended that 12 detectives, not nine, should be assigned to the unit and that a sergeant and a clerical assistant be added as well.

Better access to protective orders - Officers don’t always have access to information in protective orders. That is crucial, the report said, because victims often have an existing protective order when new violence occurs. So “a responding officer’s ability to arrest or issue a pick-up for the offender for violating the existing order necessarily impacts victim risk and safety.”

In focus groups, Wichita officers and detectives said it was difficult to enforce orders.

When it’s hard to verify an order, “the victim is exposed to prolonged danger because the offender has time to avoid capture,” it said.

The team recommended that the various law enforcement agencies unify their records management systems.

If the protective order information was more accessible, “then offender arrests could be made in situations that were not previously possible.”

More training - Officers need more specialized training on how to respond to DV and sex crimes.

More shelters - There is a lack of shelters for victims.

More court security - The District Court setting and process for handling civil protective orders compromises the safety of victims and doesn’t serve them well.

The room set aside for those who file orders lacks adequate security, the report said. Among other things, “There is no emergency button or any immediate help if a violent act occurs.” Also: “The employees feel that they are in danger.”

The design of the room also makes it difficult for people to hear.

There is not an adequate separation of the two sides involved in the order.

Sometimes, the team said it observed, a victim waited hours for a case to be heard, “only to be told there was not enough time to the hear the case.”

Among the recommendations: additional security including a panic button, a formal courtroom to hear the cases, assigned judges instead of rotating temporary judges and someone available to escort a victim to a vehicle.

“In sum,” the report said, “the Team notes that the sustained lack of a formal courtroom and permanently assigned judge … defies logic.”

Responding to the findings, Chief Judge James Fleetwood said Thursday: “I’m not aware of any situation that has led to a breach of security. Would I like to have different facilities to carry this out? Yes, I would. But we have to use the facilities that are available to us.”

Fleetwood said the protection court, as he called it, is designed to have a set number of judges trained specifically in domestic violence. It’s also designed, the chief judge said, “so I can get victims in front of a judge and get a permanent order as quickly as possible if it’s justified.”

Fleetwood said he views the study “as valuable tool in reviewing our process.”

Tim Potter has covered crime and safety for The Eagle for more than 20 years. His focus is the story behind the story and government accountability. He can be reached at 316-268-6684.