One issue that communities must struggle with in creating a specialized unit is whether it should narrowly focus on domestic violence or include other related crimes such as sexual assault, child abuse or elder abuse. Several of the units we examined had merged or were considering merging domestic violence with such related crimes. For example, in San Diego, the probation department's special unit covers sexual offenses in addition to domestic violence, and the District Attorney's Office handles both child abuse and domestic violence cases.
Experts we spoke with disagree over the use of this approach. Some feel that merging related responsibilities into a single unit is more efficient and cost effective, particularly in times of tightening budgets. Others fear that merging responsibility for related but different types of cases hinders true specialization and that other cases may receive priority over domestic violence. In Kansas City, for example, the homicide unit used to handle domestic violence investigations. One person felt that domestic violence cases now receive more attention by the special domestic violence unit. Furthermore, merging related functions may increase the chance that the special units will be further subsumed under more general departments. Some police departments have compromised by housing related functions together, thereby reducing overhead costs, but retaining the specialization of individual staff.
Across the board, people stressed the importance of staffing special units with people who want to be there, rather than by requiring people to work in this area. In fact, many supervisors prefer to have people who are interested in and committed to this issue over people with more extensive experience. Given the special characteristics of domestic violence cases, it is critical for people working in the field to be sensitive about these issues. Most of the units are staffed by people who requested the assignment. In a couple of cases, agencies tried assigning people to the unit regardless of interest or commitment, but it does not appear to have worked well. In Kansas City, detectives were originally assigned to the domestic violence unit who did not want to work there. Since then several detectives have been reassigned and the unit has brought in new staff who requested the assignment.
There were several concerns noted about the use of specialized units for domestic violence. Some people felt that no one should be required to or even allowed to specialize in domestic violence for an extended period of time or an entire career. Burnout tends to be very high among individuals who work in the domestic violence field, due to stress and nature of the job. Furthermore, individuals who only work on one issue may lack an understanding of how their role fits into the broader system.
Agencies that have specialized staff for domestic violence sometimes see less of a need to train and improve the behavior of other staff. As a result the response to domestic violence may be inadequate on an agency-wide basis, even if the response by the specialized unit is particularly strong. One person felt that within the police department there was no need to train officers in domestic violence since the special unit investigated these cases. However, the front-line officer is still the first person to respond to a domestic violence incident. In several communities, people felt that specialized units had improved the ultimate response considerably, but further improvement was needed in the front-line response. Special units can also create tensions within an agency. This seemed to be particularly true when the specialized staff had smaller caseloads than other staff. If the rest of the agency is not aware of how the special unit's jobs differ, other staff may resent the special unit.