Suzanne Valdez’s decision to launch a campaign against former District Attorney Charles Branson stemmed from her belief that her criticisms of Branson needed to be matched with action. Following her successful primary campaign, Valdez’s criticism was met with action when the Lawrence Police Department introduced a Special Victims Unit last December.
One such criticism Valdez voiced was her displeasure with Branson’s handling of sexual assault cases, particularly involving students at the University of Kansas.
“The hope is to have a comprehensive, coordinated, community response to address these matters, which include trauma-trained attorneys, members of law enforcement, advocacy groups, medical personnel, mental health and substance abuse professionals and other stakeholders in the community to achieve better outcomes for families and survivors in the community,” Valdez said in an email to the Kansan.
The Douglas County District Attorney’s office is working in collaboration with LPD on the Special Victims Unit, a decision Valdez believes will allow for additional resources to be provided for these kinds of criminal cases.
“The need for a dedicated division within the District Attorney’s Office was staggering when seeing the sheer number of cases in these areas that are referred from law enforcement,” Valdez said in the email.
Prior to launching her campaign, Valdez spoke with attorney Emily Hartz about the prospects of a Special Victims Unit. After taking office, Valdez then worked with Hartz to develop the unit in coordination with the police department.
The balance of having attorneys who understand trauma and are willing to think outside the box about ways to achieve safety and empowerment of survivors while maintaining accountability is a delicate one, Valdez said in the email.
“The hope for the District Attorney’s Office is to expand the Special Victims Unit, to allow even more of these sensitive cases to be handled by the SVU as more resources can be allocated within the District Attorney’s Office,” Valdez said in the email.
The formation of a Special Victims Unit also received positive reactions from students at KU. Angela Davis, a second-year student from Emporia already felt safe while on campus but thinks a Special Victims Unit will make her and others feel safer.
“Having as many safety precautions against sexual assault and related crimes [as possible] is a good thing,” Davis said. “With a SVU in place, victims might feel safer and believed when they report sexual assault, and perpetrators will have a higher chance of being held accountable for their actions.”
Deputy Chief James Druen shared similar opinions about the Special Victims Unit and said it will increase collaboration between the District Attorney’s Office and KU.
Druen also said the KU Police approach sexual assault cases similar to other police departments — utilizing soft interview rooms and making the victim feel comfortable. That said, Druen believes the new Special Victims Unit will keep the District Attorney’s Office involved with handling crimes.
“One thing [the Special Victims Unit will do] is it's going to allow everybody to know what resources people have to be able to help victims of these types of crimes,” Druen said.
As the Special Victims Unit continues to develop, the District Attorney’s Office, Lawrence Police Department and KU Police will work to hold those who commit crimes addressed by the Special Victims Unit accountable.