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Two locals chart similar paths in law enforcement and victim advocacy

Lindsey Michaels, a new, 28-year-old police officer who has long wanted to work in law enforcement, and Kevin Barney, who, as a former cop of 37 years, has long worked in law enforcement, are working each other's former jobs.

Barney holds Michaels' former job as a regional law enforcement advocate for Safe Futures, an agency devoted to assisting victims of domestic violence. Though local police lost Barney, they gained Michaels when she recently joined the Montville Police Department.

Barney, who is in his late 60s, saw a notice Safe Futures Executive Director Katherine Verano sent out to all police departments.

"She was looking for somebody to replace Lindsey, who was going to go into law enforcement, so I said I'll put in for it," he said. "I was working for Mashantucket Tribal Police at the time."

Michaels and Barney had spent some time working together when she was an intern with New London police.

"I saw him every now and then throughout the years after that, and then I saw him most recently at a family justice center meeting," she said. "Turns out he applied for my position and got it, so we kind of came full circle."

Barney and Michaels are of different ages and paths, but their shared instincts led them to the same positions. Michaels said an injury kept her from becoming a police officer sooner, but she was looking for a job still in the criminal justice system where she'd be doing meaningful work.

She started off at Safe Futures as a court-based advocate between New London and Norwich. Her days consisted of intake, processing, keeping track of case dispositions. She also spoke with victims, helping them navigate the country system with protective orders and with what they wanted to see happen with their cases. Sometimes Michaels would be asked to speak in front of a judge.

When the regional law enforcement advocate position became available, Michaels saw something specific to her longtime goal of working in law enforcement.

"You go out with officers to do social service work, where I need the officer for safety, and you either go to the active domestics and provide immediate intervention after the scene is safe, or you do follow-ups, and a majority of my caseload is follow-ups," Michaels said. "I go with a police officer, go and talk to the victims, see how things are going, if there's DCF (Department of Children and Families) involvement, if they need anything. I provide them with gift cards, 911 phones, get them into counseling or other services that we offer, and then we got the federal grant to make it a regional position."

According to Verano and Barney there was a regional law enforcement advocate position in the 1990s, then funding dwindled.

"New London got a grant back in the mid-'90s right after the OJ Simpson case happened, and there was a lot of money that was put into domestic violence. It should've been put in a long time ago," Barney said.

For months, groups like Safe Futures and the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence have been lobbying for a funding change to continue supporting victims advocacy groups. The VOCA Fix to Sustain the Crime Victims Fund Act of 2021 would allow money from penalties and fines in deferred and nonprosecution agreements to be deposited in the Crime Victims Fund. The fund is currently supported by fines from federal convictions, but in the past several years, such fines have declined significantly due to fewer nonprosecution agreements, and some of which have been delayed. The bill is still in the state Senate after the House passed it in March.

Michaels lobbied local departments on why their partnership was important. She met with chiefs and told them this is a good program, and it's free to police departments.

"Essentially, I need a taxi and some protection," Michaels said.

She started setting up ride-alongs with Groton, East Lyme and Stonington. She became a kind of liaison for Safe Futures, so if the organization had case or a victim they were concerned about, they could go to the regional law enforcement advocate. Michaels may have a victim contact her to say whether they feel safe going to police or if they'd rather work with Safe Futures. Victims can also contact Michaels directly if they would rather seek assistance from Safe Futures.

"It's a collaborative effort  where we all decide what's best for the victim," she said.

Barney was a police officer in New London for almost 27 years. He retired as a sergeant five years ago and went to work for Mashantucket Police. Prior to his time in southeastern Connecticut, he worked for the Capitol Police in Washington, D.C., before coming to southeastern Connecticut.

Since October 2020, Barney has served as the regional law enforcement advocate for Safe Futures, where he deals with victims and police departments. He has an extensive background teaching domestic violence training to police, and taught crisis intervention training related to mental illness.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Barney's faced some difficulty by having limited access to ride-alongs, a crucial part of his role.

"It's been tough for me to do it, since the departments have restricted a lot of activities," he said. "I go to the departments, and I  talk to the liaisons. I go over some of the reports, and I call the courts and talk with them. Some of the advocates of Safe Futures, like a family violence victim advocates, if they need me to look into something with the police department, they'll go through me."

Michaels said going from an advocate to an officer had challenges. Barney said he wasn't surprised by the shift in roles.

"The whole thing is still to serve and protect the victim as much as we can," Barney said.

"I'm used to doing multiple follow-ups, and that's difficult because I'm not an advocate anymore," Michaels said. "'OK, I did my work, I did my investigation on this case.' I have to trust that my advocates in my old role are going to follow up and keep that sustained relationship, whereas, I'll be here if you need me. I hope nothing else happens, but I'll be a phone call away if you need me."

Barney said he's maintained his mindset developed as a policeman for decades but tries to have an open mind. "I still see the things a cop would see," he said. "Now, the victim is my paramount concern, but I'll also be able to tell the victim why the police acted the way they did. Ultimately it comes down, the police have to adhere to the law based on probable cause."

As someone who has seen both sides of the coin, Michaels said increased funding is an important step forward for Safe Futures. She has been a proponent of having a law enforcement advocate position, which used to be a full-time position.

"The entire time I was in that role at the agency it was only one day a week. With the caseload for Norwich, I believe I had more than 400 cases in a year just in Norwich," Michaels said. "The other departments came on board, and it spread me as an advocate kind of thin. I want to give quality help to all these victims, and for one person, it's difficult."

Still, she admits, there's a lot of work to do with police to get the buy-in for an advocate to be safely on the road at any time of the night or evening shift.

When Michaels went through the police academy, she let her domestic violence instructor know about her background. She compared the training of brand-new police recruits with her experience at Safe Futures.

"Domestics are a third of the calls that police deal with on the road. When you think of that vast number, I feel like there should have been more training," she said. "It didn't go over the psychological background of the 'why' of domestic violence. Without understanding the foundations of the issue, it's hard to explain how to handle it."

She said officers should have the same training that domestic violence advocates get, "or at least an hour to two of that same training would definitely be helpful."

Barney said the focus should always be on stopping domestic violence from repeating. "You don't want it to happen the first time, but if it does, you want to prevent it from happening again," he said. "You don't want to go back to the same house again. It always seems like the second or third time you go, things get worse and even more damaging."

That's why Michaels, Barney and Verano all tout the lethality assessment program, which police use to assess a victim's risk of being murdered.

"Cops will ask a series of questions at the scene, and if it comes up as high danger of murder, they contact us immediately, and connect that victim to services," Verano said.

Michaels and Barney both say they're excited about the possibilities of their new roles, or, looked at differently, each other's old roles.

s.spinella@theday.com

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