For law enforcement officers, the scene of a crime is often the scene of a distraught victim. Perhaps as often as anyone is the public health and safety discipline, law officers interact with people who are suffering.
After a crime or an accident, emotions run high for everyone involved. But those who are victims must deal not only with the shock of the incident and its consequences, but confusion about the criminal justice system and where they fit in.
Each year, Advocates-Crisis Support Services honors a law enforcement officer who responds to the needs of victims, who acts with compassion and understanding and shows a commitment to victims' rights.
This year, there was a tie.
Craig Police Cpl. Brian Gonzales and Tim Jantz, a sergeant with the Moffat County Sheriff's Office, both received Law Enforcement Officer of the Year Awards from Advocates for their work in 2003.
Both officers received nominations and glowing praise from numerous Advocates volunteers. Both have worked in harrowing situations, such as suicides, car accidents and incidents of domestic violence.
While their job descriptions require a professional preoccupation with crime and criminals, advocates say these officers keep the victims in mind.
"Sgt. Jantz recognizes the importance of victim rights and more importantly, victim care," one advocate wrote in nominating Jantz. "He makes sure that the victims are given their Victims Rights notification and consistently calls out victim assistance to make sure that all the bases are covered for each victim."
A good officer begins by recognizing a victim's emotional state and calling victims' advocates to the scene, said Sue Andrews, program coordinator for the Moffat County Victims Assistance Program.
Some officers may be unwilling to call advocates. For some, it's a hassle, Andrews said. It often can mean the officer has to stay on the scene longer to answer questions or evaluate the safety of the situation for the advocate who arrives.
Andrews said she values officers who are polite, who never give the impression that an advocate is imposing or is in the way.
"It's intimidating being around officers when they're involved in a case," Andrews said. "When an officer goes out of his way to make an advocate feel comfortable with the situation, that's going above and beyond."
Jantz said he couldn't imagine not working with advocates.
"I don't know what we'd do without them now because they're so (much a part) of what we do," Jantz said.
"A lot of times, we're so involved in the case we can't get right to the victims," Jantz said.
While officers process a scene, the advocates answer questions and provide a comfort level. It leaves the officers free to finish the investigation without ignoring the victims. Jantz said he never hesitates to call victims' advocates. Even when he's not sure if a situation fits the scope of advocates' repertoire, he calls them.
"All of my guys do the same thing," Jantz said.
Gonzales said he spent a lot of time with victims' advocates this year, especially in cases of domestic violence.
"Advocates gets notified every time there's a situation," Gonzales said.
Gonzales said that unfortunately he worked a lot of domestic violence cases, particularly in the last quarter of the year.
Those cases are some of the most difficult, he said.
"It's a stressful situation. There are a lot of emotions involved and it's close to home for a lot of people," Gonzales said.
Victims ask a lot of questions, mostly related to the legal process, Gonzales said.
Domestic violence victims wonder what will happen to the alleged perpetrator. When will the suspect be released from jail? Will they be notified?
"I have worked on several domestic violence cases with Brian," said one advocate who nominated Gonzales. "He not only does his job as a police officer but takes extra time with victims to explain what is going on, what he is doing, and how advocates can help. It is clear that he cares very much about his job, his agency, his community and all the people that he works with."
The staff and volunteers at Advocates put a lot of thought into their nominations for the law enforcement officer of the year, said Pat Tessmer, Advocates' executive director.
"We start the process in October," Tessmer said. "It's a really big deal for us."
Gonzales and Jantz were recipients of the eighth annual Officer of the Year award. Tessmer said the nominations have become more numerous, and advocates are more engaged in the process. They're developing stronger feelings about the officers they recommend for the award.
It's an indication of a stronger relationship between victims' advocates and law enforcement, Tessmer said.
"We appreciate the services they provide to make the community a safer place," Tessmer said. "We (work with) officers who go above and beyond and we like to recognize them."
Jeremy Browning can be reached at 824-7031 or firstname.lastname@example.org