GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) —When it comes to an unexpected, sometimes violent death, you see police at the scene working to get answers.
But what you don’t see behind the police tape is a group of volunteers working to bring some comfort to those who may be having the worst day of their life.
“It could be natural, it could be suicide, drug overdose, homicide or traffic fatality,” said Jamie Richter, a victim advocate with the Kent County Sheriff’s Department Victim Services Unit. “One of our co-volunteers calls it grief triage. And that is a very accurate description. You do what they need in that moment. And they don’t even know what they need sometimes.”
More than half of the 83 county sheriff’s departments in Michigan have victim services units. The specially trained volunteers help family members and others after an unintended death.
Recently, Grand Rapids police announced plans to start their own victim services unit, patterned after the sheriff’s programs.
From grief counseling and comfort to educating survivors about their rights and the justice system, another duty of the KCSD Victim Series Unit is to be a liaison between the victim and the police.
Lack of cooperation from witnesses has been an ongoing program for Grand Rapids police. The department hopes volunteers in its version of the victim services unit — which is expected to hit the streets by the end of the year — will help convince reluctant victims, who may also be a witness to crime, to provide police with the information they need to solve that crime.
Richter says the work of the victim services unit has had a positive effect on the way witnesses perceive law enforcement.
“Coming into someone’s home at that time, they’re vulnerable. They don’t know. And we’re able to help them build the trust factor,” Richter said. “And that reflects on the officers and the department.”
The 25-member Kent County Sheriff’s Department Victim Services Unit works one week per month on one 12-hour, on-call shift.
They were called out to help 169 times last year.
“I think the biggest thing is having a servant’s heart and being able to lend compassion,” said Richter, who has volunteered with the unit for three years. “You give of your time. You do walk away with more than what you gave.”
The Grand Rapids Police Department Victim Services Unit is still recruiting volunteers. If you’re interested, contact Julie Niemchik at 616.456.3363.