The Philadelphia Police Department (PPD) receives nearly 150,000 calls regarding incidents of domestic disturbance each year. For the past 30 years, the forms that police used to report these incidents were the same as those used for all other crimes—leaving out pertinent details that are unique to domestic violence cases.
“For the most part, it was up to the discretion of the officer to fill in any relevant information,” says Patricia Giorgio Fox, deputy commissioner of the PPD.
The police knew it was time to update and improve their evidence-gathering technique, and Susan B. Sorenson, director of Penn’s Evelyn Jacobs Ortner Center on Family Violence, agreed to help. Sorenson teamed up with colleagues at the School of Social Policy & Practice, as well as representatives from the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, community organizations, advocacy groups and city agencies, to create the Domestic Violence Project, an initiative to assist the Philadelphia police in more efficiently documenting allegations of domestic violence.
As part of the project, Sorenson conducted ride-alongs with police officers in order to determine what facts police needed to gather and what procedures needed improvement to better understand domestic violence cases and help victims.
Giorgio Fox says the updated, user-friendly forms enable officers to collect additional information, such as whether the police have previously been called to a location and whether the call was for verbal or physical abuse; this is critical in domestic violence cases.
During the pilot program, the project team solicited feedback from various sources—police officers, domestic violence victims, advocacy groups—in order to revise the forms and make certain that the language was clear and the details gathered from the scene were specific.
“These forms are more data-driven,” Giorgio Fox says. “They help the officer to better describe what happened. They also help to give as much information as possible about the victim’s appearance and behavior, as well as information about the offender.”
She adds that the information is making prosecutions for domestic violence much easier. “Those prosecuting these cases are raving about how much better they are able to do so,” she says. The content can also be used for research and prevention purposes.
The interdisciplinary project has resulted in more useful information gathered by first responders, more timely investigations by domestic incident detectives, uniformity of investigation policies and the establishment of domestic violence databases in every district.
“It’s really exciting for the city, but it’s long overdue,” Giorgio Fox says. “I attribute 100 percent credit to Commissioner [Charles] Ramsey with saying how we need to catch up with everyone else in the country. He was right. We were far behind, but now we’re starting to catch up.”
Since December, every police district citywide has used the updated data collection forms.
Originally published on April 14, 2011