Sheila Polk, the Yavapai County Attorney, unveiled the Homicide Remembrance Display at the County Courthouse Square on Monday morning. It was a quiet and solemn occasion with close to one hundred people in attendance. Additionally, family members - those related to the homicide victims - sat on chairs which had been set up in the gazebo.
Afterwards, Polk admitted that this display meant a great deal to her personally, "It does, for a couple of different reasons. I was a prosecutor in the office before I became County Attorney. I had been with the office since 1994, so for seven years... I personally handled a number of very tragic cases, including one that we are commemorating here today."
"So, it is very emotional," she continued, "but I think that for everybody, it is a time to stop and reflect on the faces behind the tragedy. Because as with any job you set up internal defenses that allows you to handle the grief and the tragedy and go into court and do what needs to be done. And I am just like all the other prosecutors in that I've learned how to do that over the years. But this display really makes you step back into the faces behind the tragedy and see the grief of the families involved. And it is very emotional, but I thought it was very important, not just for me but for everybody in the office, during this time of commemoration of National Crime Victims' Rights Week just to step back and reflect and remind ourselves that this is what we're about, this is why we do what we do."
It's easy to become complacent, sometimes it can be hard to believe that violent crime happens here, Polk acknowledged, but added, "That is one of the purposes of this display to let people know that even in Yavapai County, which seems like a very peaceful, idyllic community to most people, that we do have violent crime. And we need to continue to be tough on crime and to get tough sentences to make sure that as a county and as a community we maintain our quality of life and maintain those characteristics that make it so idyllic. And a low crime rate is one of those."
So many of the deaths didn't have to happen. Polk talked about what could make the difference between life and death, "I think heightening awareness across the board with respect to drugs and alcohol is probably one of the best things people can do. I didn't talk about the individual victims, but if you go through the display, you'll see that a large percentage of them are related to drugs and alcohol. Some of that is just so preventable. A person that drinks and then makes the decision to get behind the wheel and then kills someone, that was completely preventable. All that person needed to do was to make that decision not to drink and then drive. Those are just completely random, selfish acts that suddenly take a completely innocent victims' life. And the more we can do as a community to educate the public on drunk driving or impaired driving - because if you do drugs, then your judgment is impaired, and that's a DUI offense - the more we can do to heighten public awareness about that, we would be looking at about 50% of these crimes that would never have occurred."
Four of the homicide victims died because of domestic violence. Polk talked about how critical it is to deal with this issue before it escalates. "Domestic violence is an issue that has gained more attention as the years go by. Domestic violence typically starts as something little, so it'll start with an offender being ticketed into justice court. We put a lot of emphasis in my office on early on trying to intervene, because we know that if you intervene early, you can prevent the escalation that can result in someone's death. I know it's easier said than done, there's a whole cycle there that involves psychological, emotional as well as the physical abuse and I know it's very difficult for many women who find themselves in that situation to extricate themselves from it, but there's a lot of help out there in the community, and just making that one call to one of the domestic violence shelters is the first step."
Methamphetamine is as insidious and pervasive here in Yavapai County as it is anywhere else. Polk talked about the impact meth plays in our communities, "Certainly, in Yavapai County, there's this huge link between meth and crime. And that's one of the reasons behind our Substance Abuse Coalition is trying to get rid of methamphetamine, so that we can see a drop in the crime rate across the board. In fact, if you look at the display, you'll see that a number of them are directly related to methamphetamine as well."
"Anyone who has become a victim of crime, that is related to somebody who was either impaired due to drugs, such as an impaired driving manslaughter case, or somebody who is committing that wave of crime that is associated with someone who has lost their job, you just can't sit back and watch the drugs destroy your community," Polk explained, pointing out the need to take action. "I'd say from every perspective, it's tragic. If you look at the people that came today, regardless of how old the crime was, regardless of how long ago they lost a loved one, you just never get over that loss. And I think that anyone who has ever lost a family member, whether it's from crime or some other reason for their death, you understand that there's just always that hole there for the rest of their life."
So, what is being done? Polk explained, "Most successful approaches in criminal justice are focused on a dual approach. What we call the carrot and the stick. And what we're finding, whether it's drugs or alcohol or gambling or shoplifting, you name it - any type of crime, if you have the stick of the criminal justice system, and you combine it with the carrot which is some type of treatment or counseling, that we're going to be more successful in the long run in creating safer communities than if you have one without the other."
When asked if legalizing drugs would help ease the situation, Polk shook her head emphatically. "I'm not interested in going soft. Let me back up a little bit... In the area of drug users, state law mandates that anybody who is convicted of possession of illegal drugs that they go into treatment. And it mandates that the second time that they are convicted of possession of drugs, they go into treatment. So, it seems to me, we already have a very treatment-oriented, what some may call a 'soft' approach to drug use. And it's not until we have a third offense on someone for possession of illegal drugs that they can be incarcerated. So, by the time that we get to the point that we are incarcerating drug users, they essentially have exhausted the array of services available to help them get their life back on track. And at that point, the criminal justice is throwing up our hands and saying, 'Maybe we can get your attention if you go to prison for a while.'"
"So, definitely already we have a balanced approach of trying to intervene," Polk continued, "and bring in all the services available in a community, including treatment and social services and help with your children and help getting your GED and all sorts of things to try to help someone get their life on track. But if they, for whatever reason don't take advantage of it, and they continue to go out and offend, then it's time at that point to lock them up."
But is there room in the jails to lock up any more people? "I think our jail's got some room," Polk said firmly.