Politics & Government

Wichita overhauls its approach to victims of domestic violence and sex crimes

A federally funded audit found multiple deficiencies in how Wichita’s police and court handle domestic violence and sex crime cases, spurring changes at City Hall and on the streets.

As a result of the voluntary audit, the city is working to put more and better-trained police officers on domestic and sex crimes. Also, areas within Municipal Court have been remodeled to be safer and more comfortable for victims.

The city is asking the county District Court to make similar improvements in the area where victims file for protective orders.

The audit was led by Praxis International, a Minnesota nonprofit organization that researches and advocates for victims of domestic and sexual violence.

Among the major findings:

Problem: Police are understaffed for the domestic and sexual violence workload.

Response: The City Council has approved 13 additional patrol officers and three new detectives for the Domestic Violence/Sex Crimes Unit.

Problem: Officers do not consistently have access to court protection-from-abuse orders, especially if the orders are attached to felony or divorce cases.

Response: Wichita police are now providing records personnel with access to Sedgwick County’s Full Court records system so they can check all orders in both the city and county court systems.

Problem: Not all police officers have received adequate training in how to respond to traumatic domestic- and sexual-violence incidents.

Response: The department is seeking trauma-informed training for current officers and adding it to the curriculum for the Police Academy.

Problem: Investigators have not consistently referred victims to community advocacy and support services.

Response: Police are developing materials and policies for connecting victims with appropriate support services.

Problem: Lack of security and private space for victims in the Municipal Court at City Hall.

Response: The Municipal Court has remodeled space on the third floor to create a victim-only waiting area so they don’t have to share the hallway with defendants. Bailiffs will control communications and behavior between parties when the judge is out of the courtroom. Also, in cases where the parties can’t be in the same courtroom due to disruption, victims will be able to go to another room and watch the proceedings by live closed-circuit TV.

Wichita volunteered for the audit because it’s the best city in the state to take a lead role in fighting domestic and sexual crime, said police Lt. Jason Stephens.

Wichita not only has a large population, but also a major university and a military base, which present different challenges in law enforcement and prosecution, said Stephens, commander of the department’s domestic abuse and sexual crimes unit.

He said other cities have used the audit process to tackle either domestic violence or sex crimes, but Wichita is the first to do both at once.

Stephens said the audit was “not only (an) eye-opening experience for me as a police officer, as an investigator, but I’ll have to say that this is one of the crowning moments of my career, being involved in a big project like this.”

The study was paid for with federal funds administered by the state.

A dozen Wichita-area government and private agencies participated in gathering and analyzing the data.