An Oral History of the Crime Victim Assistance Field
Video and Audio Archive

John Gillis
Biography & Interview Summary

Picture from John Gillis
Interviewee:John Gillis;
Washington, DC
Date of Interview:April 14, 2003
Location:Washington, DC

John Gillis

Director, Office for Victims of Crime
U.S. Department of Justice, (2001- Present)


John Gillis is a former law enforcement officer. He has been a passionate advocate for crime victims since the murder of his 23-year-old daughter Louarna in 1979, and co-founded Justice for Homicide Victims in Los Angeles and the Coalition on Victims' Equal Rights (COVER) in California. He also served nine years on the California Board of Prison Terms, including a tenure as Chair, before being named by President George W. Bush as the Director of the Office for Victims of Crime.

Initial Involvement in the Crime Victims' Movement

John Gillis' entry into the victim assistance field resulted from a tragic homicide in Los Angeles in 1979. His daughter Louarna was murdered by a gang member who "bought his way" into the higher gang echelon by killing the daughter of a cop. At the time of his daughter's murder, Gillis was a sergeant with the Los Angeles Police Department, assigned to the Police Commission. As he recalls:

"In 1979, my daughter was murdered by a gang member who wanted to move up in the hierarchy of the gang. And this was his buy-in. He wanted to move up into the narcotics end of the gang and one of the quickest ways for them to do that was to either attack a policeman or do something where he would garner the favor of the gang. In addition to that, they would feel that there was no possibility that he was an informant for law enforcement.

"So he had known my daughter when they were in high school, didn't know her well, but she became the target. And.... he offered her a ride one rainy evening when she was on her way to class, drove her to an alley in the Los Angeles area and shot her to death. It happened to have been one of the alleys where the gang members did hang out and it was one of the areas where I had been on patrol. It was a part of my beat at one time. And so there were some very definite things that they were trying to get across."

Gillis describes that in the wake of his daughter's murder, there were few places for law enforcement officers to turn for assistance, counseling and support. By accident, he happened to "stumble onto a Parents of Murdered Children" meeting. He discovered at that meeting, and subsequent meetings, that POMC provided him with a valuable opportunity to share both his thoughts about his own victimization, but also to lend his expertise as a law enforcement officer to homicide survivors who sought to better understand what was happening in their own cases.

"Quite frankly, Parents of Murdered Children kind of saved my life at the time, I think, because it gave me an opportunity to talk about what had happened and venting became somewhat of a catharsis for me. So I attended their meetings and they started asking me questions about law enforcement and why cases were handled certain ways. And this was really helpful to me because then I found out I was providing help and information to those individuals who were really hurting so much. So it was a two-way street."

Soon after, he joined with a handful of other survivors of homicide victims to form Justice for Homicide Survivors. However, seeking a vehicle to be "something a little more aggressive" on the legislative front, Gilllis joined with Doris Tate (mother of actress Sharon Tate, who was murdered by the Manson family) to form the Coalition of Victim Equal Rights (COVER). Gillis' legislative advocacy brought him to the attention of Governor George Deukmejian, who tapped him to be the first victim/survivor to serve on the California Board of Prison Terms.

As a Board member and later as its Chair, Gillis led an effort to make the parole process more responsive to the needs of victims. When he discovered that victims were not always informed of parole (a circumstance he personally experienced in his own case), he implemented a formal notification process to remedy this glaring gap. Upon discovering that victims were deeply dissatisfied with parole hearing procedures that forced victims to provide their oral impact statement first, thus giving offenders and their attorney the chance to "rebut" their statements, Gillis created a policy changing the order of statements, giving victims "the final word."

In 2002, President George Bush nominated John Gillis to become the Director of the Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) at the U.S. Department of Justice. While he was awaiting Senate confirmation, the terrorist attacks were launched on September 11, 2001. Concerned that the Federal government's primary victim assistance agency -- OVC -- would have to address the needs of the victims, communities and the entire nation without a Director in place, the Senate took the unprecedented step of confirming John Gillis by a poll of the Senate, thus bypassing the normal confirmation hearing process.

Interview Summary

Context of the Era

Gillis cites numerous examples of what it was like to be a victim in the early years before the victim assistance field was firmly established:

"I can recall young policemen, when you got a call for a rape victim or somebody who was the victim of an assault.....we would put them in the ambulance and send them off to the hospital. A few weeks later, sometimes three or four, maybe five weeks later, they'd get a bill from the ambulance company for the transportation. They'd also get a bill from the hospital for the 'treatment' which, in some cases, was what amounted to a rape kit.... There was very little consideration given to the victim or the feelings of the victim."
He also provides a first-hand account of what it was like to be a victim through the trial process for his daughter Louarna's murder:
"I went into the courtroom prior to the trial beginning, and they automatically excluded me from the hearing. So I sat outside in the hall and I watched the perpetrator and his family. As the doors would open I could see them sitting up in the courtroom, all sitting together and laughing and having a good time. They would walk past me in the hall and make snide remarks, and the looks that they gave me were the kind of looks like it was my fault that they were there."

Gillis adds that while things have "changed tremendously," the thing that would probably have changed his own experience in the criminal justice process would have been an amendment for victims' rights to the U.S. Constitution. He notes that a call for a constitutional amendment was one of the principle recommendations made by the President's Task Force on Victims of Crime in its Final Report in 1982. When specifically asked how an amendment to the U.S. Constitution would help, Gillis says:

"Well, first of all, it says to the victim that we do care about you. We want you to know what's going on. You're not just a by-product of the criminal justice system. And again I can talk about experiences from when I was an investigator. I worked with detectives for a long time and before becoming a victim, you kind of thought of victims as just a necessary evil of the system, you know. It was always, 'don't call us. We'll call you.' And 'if you have to come to court, make sure you're quiet and kind of stay in the background and let us professionals handle it.' And that was the attitude of law enforcement. Unfortunately, some of that still exists today, but I think there has been a rapid change. But with the constitutional amendment, we're talking about changing the culture..."

Gillis also pointed out the tremendous financial hardship that crime and the criminal justice process exact from victims. He firmly believes that addressing those and other needs of victims should be a primary focus of the victim assistance field and its allied professions.

"We can't make the victim whole again, but we can certainly stop pulling away bits and pieces of their life. We can stop the hemorrhaging -- that's really what we ought to be doing as professionals."

Greatest Challenges

Gillis believes that "lack of communication" is the number one challenge facing the field. Specifically, he indicates that in his experience traveling the country as OVC's Director,

"I find that we're talking to each other in our own little groups, but we're not talking to others who are impacted by what we do. We're not all getting together to talk and strategize and figure out what it is we need."

He also expresses particular concern over what he has perceived to be a lack of communication between victims and service providers and that when asked, crime victims often express different concerns and priorities than those expressed by service providers:

"I go to the meetings with the service providers or the victim advocates [who say] 'we need more money for the victims.' And I go talk to the victims who say, 'We don't care about money. We want to see that justice is done. We want to be at each of those hearings when something comes up. We want the investigator to tell us what's going on.' One of the biggest challenges that we face..... is getting together, communicating, coming up with strategies where we can help each other, where service providers are actually doing what the victims think they need to do to help them."

Gillis also expresses his concern for the apparent lack of understanding among the general public about crime victims' issues:

"I think that the biggest challenge is making people aware of the things that victims go through. You know, there's no school. There's no college that says, 'okay, you're gonna' be a victim next week. So we want you to go through victimization 101 and 102, so that you'll be ready when you become a victim next week'. We need to get the message out so that [even if] the victim may not know about it... at least maybe friends and relatives will... and it's starting early, starting in the schools, talking to the youngsters in school because they, too, often become victims early.

"We tell them what to do in case of a hurricane or tornado, but nobody talks about what you do if you or your friend or a relative becomes a victim......"

Successful Strategies

Gillis emphasizes strategies the focus on local solutions to problems that victims face.

"Local, local, local -- you go to where the crimes are being committed. That's where you need to educate and talk about the things that we can do to prevent victimization. The national organizations serve a very important role in getting the message out to victims, but the role that's more important for them is to make sure they are connecting with the grassroots organizations from the bottom up."

Greatest Accomplishment

Gillis notes the considerable progress that had been made through initiatives that establish victims' rights, but suggests that is hard to quantify "success" in the context of victim services:

"...You can't total it up and say, you know, we've served 'X' amount of victims and, therefore, we have been very successful."

He suggests the ultimate accomplishment would be to provide services to victims on a universal basis:

".....We make our services available to all, but we have to go out and find those who need it, those who are too distraught to look for it, those who don't have the education or the wherewithal to seek out help. So that's would be our greatest accomplishment if we could get to those people."
"I'm hoping that one day we will no longer be needed, that we get to the point where we don't have victims. I'd like to see us out of business for that reason, but until then it still has to be a one-to-one relationship -- one victim at a time that we help."

Continuing the Field's Growth and Professionalism

Gillis cites the need for better victim education for students, as well as a component of continuing education for professionals already in the field:

"I think (we need) solid curriculum for people who want to go into victim services. I'm hoping that colleges and universities will someday realize that this is an important curriculum that they need to add......"

His advice to newcomers to the victim assistance field is basic yet extremely important:

"Talk to your clients......I think victim advocates need to talk about their bedside manner and how they relate to victims. But I think that the most important thing for them is to learn to relate to victims, learn to talk to victims, and not just talk to them, but hear what they're saying. Don't just do it as a matter of courtesy and sit there and let the victims talk, but listen to them. "

Vision for the Future

John Gillis articulates a hope that no matter where victims turn for help in the system (criminal justice or otherwise) or beyond the system, they would be able to find the assistance and support they need in a timely fashion:

"I see the vision for victims that no matter where they are or which government agency they contact, that somebody in that agency is able to direct them to the proper resources and they're able to do it in a relatively short period of time. And they're able to provide them with the services that they need. So, in effect I guess what that means is that the field has to be aware of what victims need.

"So we've got to be able to make connections with those agencies and make sure that they have the kind of training and they have the resources, and that they understand what it is the victims need. And what it is they want....."

Greatest Fear

Gillis' greatest fear is that we will one day reach the point where everybody is an "expert", but not really an expert in talking with victims. He doesn't want advocates to become so "professional," that they lose sight of how to assist crime victims.