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A New Take On Law And Order

Queens County district attorney's office revamps processes to ensure perpetrators of domestic violence are brought to justice
Such a system would provide the court with a dramatic recording that could be very influential in a judge's decision to set bail, says Richard Brown, a former criminal-court judge in his 12th year as Queens County district attorney. You can hear victims screaming and their attackers calling them names, Brown says. "When someone calls 911 in an emergency, they don't hold back. It helps to paint the entire picture of what occurred."

The prosecutor's office used part of a $3 million federal grant to help pay for IT and other improvements to the Domestic Violence Bureau, including a new system to capture and transmit digital photographs taken by the police of the victims and their injuries.

Before digital photographs, police used Polaroid cameras to photograph victims' injuries. The often fuzzy pictures would need to be sent by messenger to prosecutors, often arriving after the defendant's arraignment was held. Now the police make digital photos, transmitted electronically, available within hours, in time for arraignments. Plus, the quality of digital photos is superior to Polaroid photos, giving judges stronger evidence in determining the extent of injuries before setting bail.

Each of Queens' 16 police precincts is equipped with a digital camera. Images are transferred through an internal network to police headquarters in Manhattan. The police, through a T1 connection, retransmit the images over a private network that Verizon runs to the Domestic Violence Bureau's Unix servers, where they're captured and printed out to present to the presiding judges. The bureau was the first district attorney's office in the city to use digital photographs.

One potential pitfall of digital photos is the ease with which they can be altered, but IS director Bob Schlesinger says no one has challenged the accurate representation of the digitized pictures.

But Susan Hendricks, deputy attorney in charge of the criminal division of New York's Legal Aid Society, cautions, "Anytime you deal with a new technology that's susceptible to manipulation, safeguards need to be developed."

Digital media, as District Attorney Brown realizes, adds new weapons in the arsenal to battle domestic violence. He credits quick access to the digital photos showing victims' injuries with reducing the dismissal rate of domestic-violence crimes by 25% within six months of their introduction last year. During that same period, the conviction rate rose to 61% from 52%. "To say someone was punched is one thing," Brown says. "But to show the judge a picture taken less than three hours ago of black-and-blue marks on her arm gives some sense of the seriousness of the injury."

Photo by Sacha Lecca.