Healing & Justice for Survivors of Crime

Bracketed by the News of 2 Mass Shootings, a Coalition Representing CA Crime Victims Has Released a 10-Point “Victims’ Agenda”

Celeste Fremon
Written by Celeste Fremon

It is just over seven days since eight people were shot to death in the general area of Atlanta, GA, on Tuesday evening, March 16. Seven of the victims were women, six of the women were of Asian descent. All of the eight victims left behind survivors whom the alleged gunman also harmed irrevocably.

Now, on Monday, March 22, another gunman has killed ten people in Boulder, CO, including Boulder police officer, Eric Talley, 51, a respected veteran cop who has a wife and seven children.

We don’t yet know all the details of the shooting massacre that took place a King Soopers grocery store and its parking lot. But we do know there will be funerals, which are expensive and take planning. The planning must occur while some surviving family members juggle employment, and all the other ordinary tasks of life, which are still complicated by COVID.

Then, after everyone has gone home from the funerals, the various loved ones will be left with the long, impossible task of attempting to heal wounds that can’t ever be healed.

The needs of victims

As painful coincidence would have it, in between these two latest mass shootings, last Thursday night, representatives from a coalition of activist organizations who work with victims of crime across California, participated in a virtual town hall to talk about the necessity of prioritizing the needs of the state’s diverse victims and survivors of violent crime.

Specifically, the town hall was scheduled to call attention to a 10-point “Victims’ Agenda,”  released by by the California chapter of Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice (CSSJ), the largest such organization in the state, which outlines the steps the coalition wants California’s lawmakers to take to help victims of violent crime.

Tinisch Hollins, CSSJ’s executive director, moderated the town hall, where panelists included Assemblymember David Chiu (D-San Francisco), as well as leaders from the Chinese Progressive Association, Futures Without Violence, Peace Over Violence, the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence, Black Women Revolt and Advocates for Survivors of Domestic Violence, and more.

In opening the panel, Hollins outlined some of the main points contained in the newly released Victims’ Agenda.

First of all, said Hollins, victims need more legal protections.

For example, she said, only large employers provide crime victims who need some recovery time unpaid protected leave. “But all employees need that kind of protection if they become victims of crime, regardless of where they work.”

Similarly, Hollins said, surviving family members of homicide victims should be afforded time for making burial arrangements, grieving, and getting a start on recovery without losing work or housing.

This means that victims may need permission to delay housing or rental payments, she said, “if a financial crisis emerges after victimization.”

Hollins and other panel members described needs that are particular to certain victims, such as the “authority to immediately change locks for protection,” if you are, for example, a victim of domestic violence and living in a rental where the owner might object to the needed lock change.

Widening the definition

Another often-overlooked issue, according to Hollins and others, is to make sure that victims of unsolved crimes, get the same consideration and services that are given to the victims and surviving families of crimes for which someone has been arrested and charged.

This is particularly a problem in high crime communities, where a high percentage of crimes are not solved, said Hollins. “This means that, too often, the crime survivors who get help from the justice system are only those for whom an arrest or prosecution has occurred or is underway.”

If anything, according to various panelists, it is arguably more traumatic and fear-producing for those families where no one has been arrested for harm a loved one’s murder. Thus the group wanted to make sure that these survivors too are connected to recovery services and support.

And there are other complications in the world of crime victims that prevent those in need from getting help.

Tina Rodriguez, who works with victims and survivors in the Central Valley of California, told the audience for the virtual town hall that, in the communities she serves, “the rights of victims” are “frequently intertwined with human rights.” For instance, she said, among immigrant survivors, she finds a very high number of sexual assault victims, “and many of those are assaulted ICE” officials, she said, a situation that exacerbates the victim’s feelings of helplessness.

Rodriguez also said that the victims she sees need more realistic help with the cost of funeral services, which the state doesn’t presently cover. But the new agenda proposes to rectify this.

“A traditional service is $7500,” she said, “so a lot of families are being pushed into going with cremation because it’s cheaper. Or they have a gravesite with no headstone.”

Pamela Tate, of Black Women Revolt and Advocates for Survivors of Domestic Violence, talked about another set of problems faced by victims of domestic violence during COVID-19.

“With court delays,” she said, “batterers have been put back on the street, and victims often aren’t told until the batterer is out looking for them.”

Patti Giggans, who is the executive director of Peace over Violence, is also a commissioner on the LA County Sheriffs Civilian Oversight Commission, and told those listening virtually, that she and her commissioners have been hearing from the families who have lost loved ones to police violence, and how they have been treated.

“These families have really been treated as pariahs,” said Giggins. “Maybe there was a crime in process when their loved one was killed. Maybe they were being profiled. Or maybe their loved one was just scared of the police.” But, whatever the case, “these family members, these survivors don’t get any of the victims’ services. It makes the whole community feels victimized.”

That’s another thing the new Victims’ Agenda aims to fix, said Hollis.

“When you talk about victims of police violence not even being recognized as a victim, as a surviving family member, what does that do for public safety?” she said. “What does that do for our collective trauma? It’s time for us to turn a corner. When we say expand rights, we mean no one should face additional harm when they’ve already been harmed.”

With this in mind, Assemblyman Chiu has introduced AB 767, a bill that would make families of those killed by police eligible for victims’ services.

Assembly Bill 767, is co-sponsored by Assemblymembers Tim Grayson (D-Concord) and Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland), and also by Asm. Rob Bonta (D-Oakland), and Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco).

Survivors helping survivors

Several of the panel members admitted that they too were violent crime survivors.

“I lost two brothers to homicide,” Hollins told those who had gathered virtually. “Being able to roll out this plan with all of you is an emotional moment for me — being able to hear my story, and my family’s story in all of you.”

Krista Niemczyk, of the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence, told everyone that she lost her brother to murder “about five years ago,” she said, adding that it had “really helped” at this most terrible of times that she had an employer who was sympathetic.

At some point, the topic came up briefly about the recent furor over Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón’s various justice reforms, which has resulted in representatives of certain DA’s organizations to label him “anti-victim.”

The matter has gotten to the point that some crime survivors and others who object to the reforms that were a big part of his campaign to defeat former DA Jackie Lacey, have launched a recall campaign to unseat the new D.A. who has been in office for, as of this writing, 105 days. Yet, despite, the obvious pain experienced by the violent crime survivors who have lost family members to murder, who have recently appeared on Fox and Friends, it is not clear what percentage of LA County’s crime victims they represent.

“Our experience,” said Patti Giggans, who has been the Executive Director of Peace Over Violence, since 1985, “is that most survivors want justice. But that doesn’t mean they want vengeance,” she said. “They want healing.”

Tinisch Hollins had her own take when asked about the issue on Fox 11, in Los Angeles. “Research backs up decades of lived experience that the tough-on-crime approach and over-reliance on incarceration only compounds the conditions that create violence,” she told the reporters. “We must come together as one united community and invest in the most effective strategies for preventing violence and harm, and keeping our families and our children safe.”

Her perspective reflected the results of a survey of LA County victims of violent crime released earlier this month, by Californians for Safety and Justice, the sister organization to Hollins’ Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice.

The majority of the county’s victims and survivors, the survey indicated, wanted justice, but they thought “supervised probation and rehabilitation programs” and the like, were better for public safety than lengthy sentences. Mostly they would have preferred to have known about things like victim compensation and other services such as counseling or similar mental health support when they first became victims.

Assemblyman Chiu, the only male on the panel, also commented on the topic of victims and justice reform.

“There’s a move back to the traditional eye-for-and-eye,” he said. “We have to be mature enough to move beyond that.”

Finally, near the close of the event, Shaw San Liu, the Executive Director at the Chinese Progressive Association, who had been through a distress-filled week because of the events in Atlanta, pronounced herself hopeful.

“I’m feeling very optimistic,” she said to Hollins and the other panelists. “You’ve put on paper what we’ve been thinking.”