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Calls for better access to police reports


Victims of domestic violence have to deal with fear, emotional harm, and often, physical harm. And if they want a copy of the police report dealing with their case, they have one more hurdle to overcome: they must make a trip downtown to the Public Safety Building.

It can be a hardship for people who are often poor and-or lack reliable transportation or child care, say victims' advocates and City Council member Carla Palumbo. It also makes it less likely that the victims will follow-through on legal action against their abusers, they say.

Domestic violence victims used to get a copy of their report right at the scene, Palumbo says, but somewhere along the line, that changed. It may be because police officers now have computers in their cars, she says. Officers can fill out the report on the computer, she says, but they can't print it.

"Before, they used to hand-write them and hand you a copy," says Palumbo, who is also CEO of the nonprofit Legal Aid Society.

Now, victims are given information at the scene about how to get their report. They have to go to the Public Safety Building on Exchange Boulevard and present proper identification and their report number to get their documentation. (For victims, there is no charge for the report, says James Smith, the city's director of communications.)

A small number of the reports require redaction of certain information, Smith says, in which case the victim would have to file a FOIL request with the city. The city can also arrange for victims' attorneys to get crime reports from the police department without filing a FOIL request, he says.

The process is user-friendly, Smith says, and shouldn't present an undue hardship for victims of domestic violence. And Rochester police spokesperson Jacqueline Shuman says that she's not aware of any complaints about the system.

But Palumbo and victims' advocates say that making people go to the Public Safety Building to get their report is an extra step in a process that's difficult to begin with. For myriad reasons, domestic violence victims often don't follow through on legal action against their abusers. Nationally, only about 38 percent of domestic-violence victims get an order of protection against their abusers.

Making the process more difficult just makes follow-through even less likely, Palumbo says. If the victims don't get a report at the scene, advocates say, chances are they'll never get one at all.

"Any victim of crime has been traumatized by that crime," Palumbo says. "They shouldn't have to take extra steps to get the documents they need. It just seems to me there ought to be an easier way to get people their police reports."

She suggests e-mail, fax, or making the reports available online — if it's been established that those methods are safe for the individual victims.

Victims of domestic violence may also be poor or lack transportation or child care, Palumbo says, which turns what seems like a simple trip downtown into a hardship. And issuing the report right at the scene means that victims can correct any errors immediately, she says.

Documentation is important in domestic-violence cases, Palumbo says, because it builds a record. And having more information available to the judge strengthens victims' requests for an order of protection, she says. The report is not required to get an order, but it can verify the details of a victim's story, says Jennifer Sullivan, court advocacy program coordinator for Willow, formerly Alternatives for Battered Women.

The report preserves the details of the incident, she says, which may be difficult for a traumatized crime victim to recall correctly.

At least some Monroe County towns with police departments make a version of the police report available on the scene, advocates say. In the Town of Gates, for example, victims usually get something at the scene, and the final report is available at the Gates Police Department. John Helfer, spokesperson for the Monroe County Sheriff's Department, says that victims typically have to pick up the report in person.

E-mail or putting the report available online might result in security issues, he says. Anyone could call, for example, and request an e-mailed copy of the report, Helfer says.