1999 Finalist
Winners:
City of Largo, Florida
1999
Publication:
Innovations in American Government Awards
Sponsored By:
Innovations in American Government Awards
Jurisdiction:
Florida

Over the past few decades, the state response to domestic violence has changed drastically. As more information about the prevalence of a cycle of violence and abuse and its connection to substance addiction and child neglect has emerged, state and local governments have stopped seeing domestic abuse as a "family affair," and made enforcing security within the home a much higher priority. Unfortunately, as law enforcement officials pursue domestic abuse cases more vigorously, they continue to be shocked at the scope of the problem.

A city of only 75,000 residents, Largo sees approximately 1,000 domestic violence cases each year. With only a 16% prosecution rate for domestic violence offenses in 1995, many victims and children living in the affected households remained unsafe as the perpetrators failed to receive treatment and legal sanctions. The Largo Police Department (LPD) was concerned that such dismal results in the courts would discourage their officers from responding to abuse cases and keep the cycle of violence intact.

The LPD started by enforcing a mandatory arrest policy for domestic violence disturbances, but this failed to change the outcomes of the critical trial phase of enforcement. Witnesses often had foggy memories, victims confused or concealed their stories, suspects vigorously denied wrongdoing, and judges, prosecutors, and police officers felt overwhelmed by scores of identical-looking affidavits backed up by little hard evidence.

In an effort to increase the resources available to prosecute domestic violence effectively, the LPD purchased still and video cameras and tape recorders in 1995 to help them gather the most accurate and easily accessible evidence possible. After receiving positive feedback from a 90-day pilot program, the Department launched a secure website in early 1996 to easily distribute the relevant evidence to attorneys, judges, police investigators, and other professionals dealing with domestic violence issues.

Now, when responding to a domestic violence call, officers record interviews with witnesses, take pictures of the crime scene, and even record video statements by the victims. This last step is especially helpful when victims recant their stories during the trial for fear of reprisal from their partner, a frequent and frustrating occurrence for prosecutors.

Under Florida law, the police notify the certified shelter program in the district within 24 hours of the incident to help them plan for the victim's safety and potential treatment for aftereffects of abuse. Arraignment hearings are set for 1pm each day, so police officers have time to gather and distribute the evidence via the website before a judge hears the case. After the pilot, the prosecution rate for domestic violence cases in Largo rose from 16% to 45%, and since then it has stabilized around 50%, a huge increase in the security of at-risk households in the city.