When it comes to domestic violence and sexual assault, Detective Susan Espinoza wants people to know there is always hope, and there is always someone willing to listen and help.
For Huntersville residents, Espinoza is that person.
The 34-year-old officer has been with the Huntersville Police Department seven years. She is part of the department's special investigations section and serves as a domestic violence/sexual assault detective and victim advocate.
The Huntersville Police Department recently received a grant of $144,000 from the Governor's Crime Commission to fund her new position for two years. That amount also includes a 25 percent match by the town of Huntersville and existing funding. A federal grant to the state will fund positions like Espinoza's through the Violence Against Women Act.
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The number of domestic violence and sexual assault incidents reported in Huntersville in 2004 was 2,428. In 2009, 3,261 were reported.
The reported number of sexual assaults reported in Huntersville so far this year is 13. The number of reported incidents that were domestic-violence related so far for 2010 is 189.
Chief Phil Potter said Espinoza's position was created because the department noticed a significant number of repeated domestic disputes and domestic violence cases being reported in Huntersville.
"We decided this would be a good opportunity to dedicate one detective to work domestic violence cases exclusively," said Potter. "We felt that that was an area that needed attention. Although I believe that the department needs a non-sworn victim services coordinator to better serve our residents who are crime victims, this situation gave us an opportunity to dedicate resources to another much-needed problem, but we will still try to address the other need in the future."
About a year ago, Potter said the department applied for federal funding to create a non-sworn position of a victim-services advocate because north Mecklenburg's only government-funded victim services are offered through United Family Services.
He said the department wanted to partner with United Family Services to fund one of its employees to provide victim advocacy for the department, but instead received funding for the domestic violence/sexual assault detective who also will serve as a victim advocate.
"There is very little support for victims of crime, except what the police officers are initially able to provide," said Potter. "Our federal grant application was not funded, as they only funded about 40 out of over 500 grants from across the nation. So, we tried this approach again with state funding from the Governor's Crime Commission, and they approved our grant funding, but not for the purpose we had originally sought."
While there hasn't been a significant increase in these types of reports, Espinoza said a good way to prevent more is through educating the public.
Espinoza said she spends most of her time reviewing calls for service and incident reports involving domestic disturbances, assaults on females and domestic criminal trespass. She doesn't typically respond to domestic violence situations unless required by a supervisor. The reports and incidents are investigated by uniformed patrol officers first, and then she reviews them.
Serving as a victim advocate for men and women - the majority are women - Espinoza serves as link between the victims and services provided by Mecklenburg County. She even provides transportation, if needed.
"I speak with the parties involved and provide them with information that is useful to many," said Espinoza. "If we cannot provide what a subject is looking for, we can refer them to someone who can help. There are many services offered in Mecklenburg County and some that are free for those specifically involved in domestic violence situations."
Espinoza also may provide enhanced victim services to domestic violence and sexual assault victims by accompanying victims to the magistrate's office and court cases, as well as locating needed social and psychological services.
Though her job is as challenging as it is rewarding, she realizes there only so much she can do.
"I understand there are always going to be problems that I will not be able to solve or situations that I will not control, but doing the best job I can do is satisfying and rewarding," she said.
And she said there is sort of a silver-lining in her work.
"The positive aspects of what I do include helping people and especially providing hope for those who think they have lost hope when they find themselves in very difficult situations," said Espinoza. "Being in this profession allows me to meet and involve myself in several areas of the community at large. We meet people from all walks of life and their experiences and professions come in handy when helping others, such as being able to point someone in need in the right direction."
By having this dedicated position, the department also hopes to reduce the incidents of domestic violence in Huntersville, especially repeated calls at the same location, and to hold abusers criminally responsible for their actions, said Potter.