By Jason A. Smith
Members of the Henry County Police Department recently participated in a training program for the agency's Special Victims Unit, which was formed in January to address cases involving domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence and stalking.
The unit was funded through a federal Criminal Justice Systems Improvement Grant of $246,833, via the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). The grant was awarded in January, by the U.S. Department of Justice, according to the unit's supervisor, Henry Police Sgt. Keith Shumate.
Henry State Court Judge Ben Studdard addressed participants in the Aug. 26 training session, along with Superior Court Judge Arch W. McGarity. Studdard said he and McGarity emphasized a need for police to maintain their "professionalism" in domestic cases.
"These really are important cases," said Studdard. "Domestic-violence cases have implications for generations to follow, because of the children that will be affected for the rest of their lives. It's important that everybody involved takes their job seriously, from the police department, to emergency responders, to defense counsel."
Studdard added that it is important for police officers to understand the "special issues" which arise in cases of family violence. "They are some of the most difficult cases that police and the courts deal with," the judge said. "They're emotionally charged cases, and it can be difficult to know what's really happening in a household."
Judge McGarity said a vital element of police practices in domestic cases centers on the treatment given to alleged victims. McGarity added that he and Studdard taught police officers, during the training program, to encourage victims to be "cooperative" in an investigation.
The two judges also emphasized the importance of being prepared to testify in court in such cases. "Review your file, before you get there to testify, if you're testifying in front of a fact-finder, which would be a jury or a judge, depending on the situation," McGarity said. "It is very helpful for a fact-finder, who wants to have confidence that a person in uniform is telling them the truth."
Shumate, who oversees three detectives in Henry Police's Special Victims Unit, said his goal is to "improve the quality of investigations, from [the time] an officer gets on the scene, all the way to prosecution."
He added that the federal grant also funded a liaison to assist victims of domestic violence during investigations. "A lot of victims get frustrated telling their same account of an event, over and over again," Shumate said. "A lot of times, [the liaison] can be a voice for the victim."
The sergeant said, thus far, the impact of his unit has included improvements in communication among victims, the court system and public-safety personnel, and "having the victims' voices ... heard."
"My hope is to present well-investigated cases, and to further improve the positive prosecution of cases where females are victims," Shumate said.
For more information about the Special Victims Unit, visit http://www.co.henry.ga.us/POLICE/SVU.shtml.