An Oral History of the Crime Victim Assistance Field
Video and Audio Archive
How To Search This Transcript:
Beatty: This is David Beatty interviewing John Gillis. John, could you state your name, spell it for us and then your title of your current position?
Gillis: Sure, it's John W. Gillis, G-I-L-L-I-S, and I'm the Director of the Office for Victims of Crime.
Beatty: Okay, well, let me start with a... a real basic question and that is, what first got you involved in the criminal victims' movement? How did you come to this field?
Gillis: Well, let me start off by saying that I was in law enforcement, had been in law enforcement for a number of years. And 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 gather the favor, or garner the favor of the gang. And 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 drove her to uh... 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.
Beatty: And that prompted you to get involved in a variety of organizations and one of which I think you helped form. Could you tell us a little bit about how that came about?
Gillis: Sure. Shortly after uh... her murder, and at the time the police department they did have a department psychiatrist, but most police officers did not go to the psychiatrist to talk about problems. So I was kind of looking for a way to kind of an outlet for me and I happened to stumble onto a Parents of Murdered Children meeting just by accident. It was a conference that... that was being held by the then... then Governor Deukmejian of California. So I wandered into this conference and I sat in the back room, back of the room and as you know, in... in most of the POMC meetings they kind of go around the room and... and talk about their case and why they are there. And it finally got around to me and I told them about my daughter's murder and I didn't say a lot about it, just a bit of information. And... and also indicated that I was a police officer with the Los Angeles Police Department. And after that meeting, several of the people came over and they invited me to come to one of their chapter meetings.
Uh, I did that. And 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, you know, somewhat of a catharsis for me. So I attended their meetings and... and they started asking me questions about law enforcement and why cases were handled certain ways. And... 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. And from there a group of us decided that we wanted to start our own chil, our own uh... organization, so we started Justice for Homicide Victims. And that was the first organization that I helped found. I worked with that for a while and then I wanted to do something a little more aggressive, a little more into the legislative issues. And formed an organization along with Doris Tate, who is the mother of actress Sharon Tate and her daughter was... was murdered by the Manson family.
So we started the organization called uh... "COVER," Coalition of Victim Equal Rights. And we were, we wanted to get more into the legislative part and get some laws changed and that's how I got started.
Beatty: Well, and it wasn't, not too long after that, that you've done that work that you also got a call from the state level. Can you tell us a little bit about your experience as sort of a unique victim representative with that?
Gillis: Sure. And I mentioned at the time I was with Los Angeles Police Department and I was getting calls literally from all over the country. People had heard about what I was doing and that I was a victim and they called to ask questions. And the police department was very accommodating. They allowed me to take those calls and I would come into the office after being out uh... working and return calls to victims. And pretty soon we started going to Sacramento. This was in California. We started going to Sacramento and testifying before the legislature on certain crime bills and then there was Proposition 115 which was the Crime Victims' Initiative. And there was then Senator Wilson. He was a U.S. Senator and he was one of the... the first notable people in the legislature who came to our assistance. We were trying to get people to help us raise funds and get the bill passed. And he volunteered to give us some money. He did it from a prior campaign fund I believe or some, he found a legal way where he could provide us with funds to help with that piece of legislation.
And during the course of that I met then Governor of California Deukmejian and Governor Deukmejian asked me to --they said they had a position that they'd like to consider me for. And at the time I was on so many boards and commissions and... and when his staff member mentioned it, "You know, we...the Governor has this Commission that he'd like you to sit on." I said, "Oh, gee, you know, I'm really kind of stretched to the max and... and I... I don't have time to volunteer for another commission." And he says, "Well, think about it. And if you... if you feel differently, give me a call." And as he walked away--and I was retired at the time, I had retired from the police department--and as he walked away, one of the people standing next to me says, "That's not exactly a volunteer Commission. It pays quite well." So I...
Beatty: What was that Commission?
Gillis: That was the Board of Prison Terms. The Board of Prison Terms makes the determination, well, does the hearings for prisoners that are sentenced to life. And they make a determination as to whether or not they should be released on parole. And of course after hearing that it wasn't a volunteer Commission and that uh... the Governor had asked that I do it, I... I had a sudden change of heart. And at the time, I did not realize that the murderer of my daughter would have to come before that Commission. So I was appointed to the Commission by Governor Deukmejian. About nine months after that, Senator Wilson was elected Governor and then he appointed me as Chairman of the Board. When I got there the murderer of my daughter, had had one parole hearing and in California, they, at the time they were getting hearings about every two years. And after I became Chair and he was due for his next hearing, he decided that he didn't want to have anymore hearings while I was on the Board.
And not that I could have sat on his panel, I would have to recuse myself, but he just decided not to come before any of the members of the Board. So I stayed there for nine years. I wasn't Chairman for the whole time, but during the course of that time, he didn't come up for a hearing. He decided not to come up for a hearing. I also found out, again in talking with victims, when we found out about the... the two-year maximum, that they could deny parole. And this meant that victims were, every two years, coming right back to the Parole Board for another hearing. And in many instances they knew that the person would not get a parole, but just, they just to make sure--and when you're a victim you... you don't want to take any chances. You've already taken chances and lost a loved one. Well, you didn't take chances and lose a loved one because it generally was something that was out of your control. But they did not want to take a chance of the perpetrator being released.
So there was some legislation that was sponsored and in my position I couldn't openly support that legislation, but deep within my heart and... and in the ways that I could, I did support. Fortunately that legislation passed and it raised the amount of time to five years, from... from two to five. And that was the amount of time that the Board of Prison Terms could deny a prisoner parole. So that was a real relief for victims and it was one of the things that I felt was... was at the top of the list of the most important things that has happened in the state of California for... for victims. And one of the other... (Tape turned over)
Gillis: One of the others things that happened while I was at the Board of Prison Terms was the notification of family members. And there had not been any organized procedure for notifying members of the victims as to when the hearings would be. So I established a procedure. We... we started sending out letters to victims in advance and notifying them of the hearings. We started a file where we kept up with the victim's address. And... and we had them sign forms indicating that they wanted to be notified. And that... that was very helpful to the victims and they felt that they were not being ignored by the system. But I think one of the... one of the biggest changes and... and I didn't think it was such a significant change until I started talking with the victims. When we did the hearings at the conclusion of the hearing the Commissioner would ask the uh... next of kin for their statement, if they wanted to make a statement. And the next of kin would make the statement, make their statement.
Then after that would come the prisoner and the prisoner would make his statement. And then the attorney would make his or her statement. And what this amounted to was that no matter what the victim said, the... the prisoner and the attorney spent the rest of their time uh... knocking what the victim had said and... and discounting the victim's statement. So... so I went back to my legal staff after hearing-- seeing how annoying this was to victims, I went back to the legal staff and... and knowing how things operate in government, I... I just asked them to find out if there was anything that prohibited a change. And they couldn't find anything that prohibited...
Beatty: Changed the order?
Gillis: Changed the order, yeah, they couldn't find anything that... that would prohibit me from changing the order. And they laid out this whole procedure that I needed to go through and had to be reviewed by the legislative folks and a whole lot of reviews. And, but they couldn't find something that told me I had to do it that way. So knowing how things operate in the government, I just decided to make the change. So I announced that from now on we'd have the prisoner make a statement first and we'd have the attorney after that. And then the victim made their statement last. And it created a real furor, but nobody could find any reason why I couldn't do it. So it remained in effect. And I was kind of smiling last month when I went to California and at the California District Attorneys' Association and they were telling me that a piece of legislation had been introduced to change that procedure because it was now an establish, to put it back the way it was. And they couldn't change it because we had established a precedent.
The victims wanted it that way. So the legislature was working on a piece of legislation to change it back. So...
Beatty: You did something right.
Gillis: So it's been in effect about ten years now and I don't know what happened to the piece of legislation. I don't know if it passed or not, but.
Beatty: That's fascinating. Well, in the midst or shortly after your-- all this work that you were doing in California for the Board of Prison Terms-- Washington called. President Bush nominated you for the position of Office for Victims of Crime and you came to Washington and started through that process. And then 9/11 happened. And within a very, very short time of that tragedy you actually were confirmed in what probably was certainly record speed with regard to that position. Could you tell us a little bit about what that was like? What must it have been like for someone who taking the lead of the key governmental organization with regard to victims at a time when we were facing such a crisis?
Gillis: I had been waiting for my hearing date to be set and I think it was probably 30 days or so before September the 11th that I received a notice that I would be going for my confirmation hearing on the 13th. And my wife and I wife arrived in Washington on-- in Arlington actually-- on September the 10th. And I wanted to get there a day early so that I could kind of relax and... and I wanted to get there a day or two early so that I could kind of relax and be ready for my hearing. Well, we all know what happened on September the 11th. And of course it just shocked all of America. And I didn't hear from anyone regarding the hearing on the 11th and didn't expect to. And I got a call on the 12th saying that it may be delayed or they really weren't sure. And then they reached a... a, they put me back on the schedule for the 13th and it went through the hearing. One of the Senators said to me that they were going to do something unprecedented and that was they were going to poll the Senate for a vote, rather than wait for it to go to the full floor. So they polled the Senate for a vote and I was confirmed.
Beatty: They went for a direct vote rather than doing the traditional debate process.
Gillis: Right, right. And on that following Monday I was sitting in the seat at the Office for Victims of Crime as the new Director. And Tuesday, no Wednesday, the Attorney General and the FBI Director and I went up to Pennsylvania, to Shanksville. We were at at the location there and talked with the workers and... and viewed the site. And then the following week, no two weeks later, I was at Ground Zero. So it was, it was something that started off at a tremendous pace. The pace remained fast and hectic for almost a year and it's just beginning to calm down some. So it was quite an experience. And I think the training and experience that I had had in law enforcement because that's what you do continuously is train for those kind of situations and you never know what kind of situation you're gonna be in from one minute to the next. You know, one minute you're trying to help a lost child and five minutes later, you can be in the middle of a shootout with some bad guys. So it, so you're accustomed to the change of pace. And I think it was that experience that really helped me through September 11th and the aftermath.
So it was something that all of us will not forget and it was a terrible shock to America. And I was privileged to be there to try and help the people who were the victims.
Beatty: Right-- man at the right time. John, you actually have been in this field for quite a while and we've been asking people who've been participating in this project to give us a little perspective. And I'd be interested to hear from you to describe sort of what victims' rights and services were like when you first sort of came into the field and how they've changed... how they've evolved since that time.
Gillis: I guess my time goes back long before I actually got into the victims' rights field because I have to talk about my role as a police officer. And I can recall as a young policeman when when you got a call for a rape victim or somebody who was the victim of an assault, I can recall that 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 and, you know, a smear...
Beatty: Forensic sample...
Gillis: Yeah, yeah, forensic sample, right. And they were being billed for that. There was very little consideration given to the victim or... or the feelings of... of the victim. So, that was when I first started out as a police officer. Even at the time that my daughter was murdered and he was captured uh... shortly thereafter and we had a trial within a year. I was not allowed into the courtroom.
I went into the courtroom prior to the trial beginning and... and they automatically excluded me from... 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. And they would walk past me in the hall and make snide remarks and the... the looks that they gave me were the kind of looks like it was my fault that they were there. So things have changed tremendously. One of the things that... that will help most victims in the future is if we can get a Constitutional Amendment. And I have to go back to the time of the Presidential Task Force when all those recommendations were made and one of the things that was made some 20 years ago was that there'd be a Constitutional Amendment that gave the victims the right to be present at all hearings, at all stages of the... of the hearing and a right to notification.
And I guess I have suffered from not having those things, suffered in... in the sense that not being allowed in the court. And I also mentioned that the murderer of my daughter had had one hearing prior to my going to the Board of Prison Terms. I had no idea that he had even had a parole hearing until I got to the Board of Prison Terms.
Beatty: You were never notified?
Gillis: Never notified, never notified. So... so...
Beatty: You mentioned the Constitutional Amendment. I'm curious. That's clearly something that is a major policy agenda of this field. In what way do you think that it might impact the kinds of experiences and the rights that you either had or were denied? How would that change the landscape of the criminal justice system in your opinion?
Gillis: 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 byproduct of the criminal justice system. And again I can talk about experiences from when I was an... an investigator. I worked detectives for a long time and before becoming a a victim, you kind of thought of victims as uh... just a necessary evil of the system, you know. It was always kind of "don't call us, we'll call you." And "If you have to come to court make sure you're quiet and kind of st... stay in the background and let us professionals handle it." And that was the attitude of law enforcement. And unfortunately some of that still exists today, but I think there has been a rapid change. But the Constitutional Amendment we're talking about changing the culture, you know. This is the culture that... that the Amendment will change. It will let law enforcement know that you need to talk with victims. You gotta communicate with 'em.
You got to let them know what... what is going on and they have a right to know, not just because you're a nice guy. It's because they have a right to know. And it lets the prosecutors know that as you're making these decisions and... and I've sat in the court many a day with the prosecutor and defense attorney and we walk in and we talk to the judge about changing a trial date. And never, the victim's nowhere in sight, next of kin, nowhere in sight. And we find out that it is a tremendous financial drain on the victims. I can talk about countless numbers of victims who've lost their jobs, who've gone bankrupt, who... who are in total financial ruin, all because our justice system didn't take into consideration their needs. And when a victim has to give up, a victim or a witness, has to give up six or eight or ten days of work going back and forth to court before it even starts, they lose time at the time of victimization and employers have to run their business.
And if everyone had kind of cooperated and said, "You know, we won't call you us unless we need you. And, but just give us a phone number where we can get in touch with you or give us a, give us an address where you're going to be." And... and those are the kinds of things that we have to start doing in the criminal justice system. We can't make the victim whole again, but we can certainly stop pulling away bits and pieces of their life. We can... we can stop the hemorrhaging and that's... that's really what we ought to be doing as... as professionals. We can't make 'em whole, but we can stop the hemorrhaging.
Beatty: In your sense and you certainly have had uh, faced a wide variety of challenges. What would you say is the greatest challenge that you and your colleagues have faced in trying to affect change through the years?
Gillis: Are you talking about in my private life or...
Beatty: You know, it's an open question. You can ask answer it in terms of your personal experience or in the context of working with groups or Federal government. It's really up to you to identify and define what those challenges are, what the biggest ones are.
Gillis: 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 a, you're gonna be a victim next week. So we want you to go through victimization 101 and 102 and... and so that you'll be ready when you become a victim next week." They are, they become a victim without knowing what's going to be expected of 'em. And then we have-- when I say "we" I'm talking about government-- has these programs that are available to victims. And we expect them to know all about it as soon as they're victimized. And that's the last thing that they're thinking about. Again here's a person who's sitting there hemorrhaging --trying to get through--they can't get over--get through this traumatic experience that they've just gone through and we're not there to provide those services to them that they need. And as time progresses, we tend to want to blame them for not knowing that the services existed. So... so we're the ones who are falling short. We need to get the message out so that the victim may not know about it, but at least maybe friends and relatives and... and it's starting early, starting in the schools, talking to the youngsters in school because they, too, often become victims early.
But it should be a part of our education system where we tell them what you do and we... we used to talk about what you'd do if there was an atomic attack, if there was an atomic bomb. We'd tell them duck and cover. And we tell the kids what to do if there's an earthquake. I mean we have that training in the schools out on the West Coast where earthquakes are somewhat prevalent. 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. So we need to start there. We need to get the information out to community groups, to churches, to civic organizations so that victimization is not, is still mystified to everyone and it needs to be a part of the political campaign. When we talk about local politics, they ought to be talking about how they're going to... to help resolve issues of... of victimization in their community.
And everyone talks about being tough on crime, but in fact being tough on crime should be reversed and we should be talking about how do we prevent victims? And do we help them once we get them? Because that's what it does translate into, if you're... if you're tough on crime and you are stopping crime from happening, you're preventing new victims from being here. So that needs to be a local issue and as they say, "All politics are local," so.
Beatty: Well, you actually I think answered sort of my next question in some detail, but I'll give you a chance to add even more perspective to it. And that are, what are some of the strategies and tactics that you know, you as personally or... or uh, colleagues and others that you've worked with in the context of organizations or agencies -- uh, have you found have been most successful in addressing some of these challenges? You mentioned public education and education in these other areas, are there other things that you think are particularly useful and successful in trying to accomplish our goals in the field?
Gillis: Yes. Local, local, local-- you go to where the crimes are being committed. And... and when I say "local" I'm talking about at the level where the crime is being committed. That's where you need to educate and... and talk about the things that we can do to prevent victimization. And when I say "local, local, local," I mean that it's nice to have the national organizations to focus on... on these issues, but they need to help us get to the grassroots so that we can get that information out at the local level. The national organizations serve a very important role in in... in getting the message out to victims, but their role, the role that's more important for them is to make sure they are connecting with the grassroots organizations from the bottom up, right.
Beatty: Great. What would you say, in your estimation, is one of the greatest accomplishment that we have achieved in promoting victims' rights and serving victims' needs?
Gillis: Gosh, that's, the greatest achievement in promoting victims' rights. Now it, again I have to think of it as a uh... one to one kind of relationship. And you can't total it up and say, you know, "We've served X amount of victims and, therefore, we have been very successful." I'm hoping that one day we... we will no longer be needed, that we get to the point where we don't have victims. And 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. And 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 our, that would be our greatest accomplishment if we could get to those people.
Beatty: Good. Well, since we were talking about accomplishments, I also have to bring up the other side of that coin and coin and... and that is what are our greatest challenges that remain? Or what are the things that we have failed to accomplish as a field that needs a clearer focus?
Gillis: One of the things that I'm finding as I go around the country talking to victims and also talking to service providers and national organizations and... and it seems like it's something that should have been standard from the beginning. But I find that we're talking to each other in our own little groups, but we're not talking to others that are impacted by what we do. And by that I mean every year we have a POMC meeting where it's predominantly victims who attend this meeting. And we also have the NOVA conference, predominantly service providers. And then we have other organizations that get together that are will have the sexual assault people get together, predominantly sexual assault. But we're not all getting together to... to talk and strategize and figure out what it is we need. If you ask any service provider what kind of service they're providing to the victims and they will tell you, "Outstanding. We do a fantastic job." And I go to one of the victims' meetings and I ask them, "How are the service providers helping you?" "Hey, they don't help us. They're never here. They're nev... they're never there when we need them.
'They... they want to talk about money. And we want to talk about trying to get through the tragedy." So... so we've got to start getting together and talking with each other because right now the perception is, among each of the groups, is that they're doing a fantastic job for the things that they're supposed to do. And in most cases, they are. But nobody else knows or understand that because we're not communicating with each other. And so that's... that's one of the biggest challenges that we face and that is getting together, communicating, coming up with strategies where we can help each other, where uh... service providers are actually doing what the victims think they need to do to help them. And I recall over the years some of the debates we... we've had when I go to the meetings with the service providers or the victim advocates. I said, "We need to get more money for the victims. We need more money for the victims." And I go talk to the victims.
"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." And... and I think something that kind of su... supports that is when we talk about what happened in, on September the 11th. Police officers have the Police Officers' Safety Bill, we call it, "PSOB," where they, a police officer who's killed in the line of duty--and I believe right now it's $250,000 to the family. Well, everyone was in complete awe after September 11th when for about six months not one family--I shouldn't say not one--a very few of the families had asked for the $250,000. And we were at a meeting and they were talking about it. And I said, "You don't understand. They're still grieving. This is not... this is not the important issue right now. Money is not the issue." So the advocates and... and service providers think that we can solve everything with money and the victims are saying, "There are other things that we need to look at." (Tape is changed)
Beatty: John, what would you say is needed today to continue the growth and professionalism of our field? What's still missing?
Gillis: I think a solid curriculum where 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. And then just like any other curriculum that's... that's in the colleges and... and universities. When you graduate you're not an expert in the field. It just gives you a broad base of knowledge so that you can go out and then use that knowledge to kind of do something good. It's the on-the-job training from there, but I think many people want to do the on-the-job training first without that curriculum. And... and I think the curriculum is very important. When you come out of college as an engineer or you come out as a doctor, you... you do an internship somewhere. And the internship is to connect you to the real world because you've been in academia for the last four or six years. And it's... it's not always compatible with what you're gonna learn or what you need to know in the real world.
Beatty: Okay, good. What advice would you give to a professional or a volunteer that's just now coming into the field? What's the most important thing you think they ought to know, keep in mind for this type of work?
Gillis: Talk to your clients. Talk to your clients. And again I relate back to the... the medical profession. When the doctors come out and I know they did a survey not too long ago and it's kind of an ongoing survey that they do every five or ten years and they talk about the doctor's bedside manner. I think victim advocates need to talk about their bedside manner and how they relate to victims. But I think that's 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 victim talk, but listen to them. Uh...
Beatty: Okay. What would you say is your greatest fear or your greatest concern for our field at this point?
Gillis: That everybody becomes an expert and become the expert in not talking to the client. There's no relationship there. I'm an expert victim advocate, but not relating to the victim.
Beatty: You're saying is, and not to put words in your mouth, but you're saying so there's the field, professionalized people become more expert. They become more divorced from sort of the reality of victimization. The people who they're ultimately there to serve.
Gillis: Right, and we start serving by telephone calls and e-mail and voice messages and no one-to-one contact or relationship with the victim. (Break in interview)
Beatty: So what would you say is your vision for the future of our field?
Gillis: That's probably the most, the toughest question I've had all day because when you say "vision for the field," I don't think of it in terms of vision for the field. It's vision for victims is what I have. And 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... in effect, I guess what that means is that the field has to be aware of what victims need. They have to anticipate the needs of victims and somehow or other we've got to make that connection with those agencies that are going to come into contact with that victim, you know, the first responders, the people who are going to provide services after the first responder. 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. So that's a challenge. That's a real challenge.
Beatty: Is there anything that... that's all my questions. Is there anything that you wanted to add? Anything-- comments that you weren't able to make that I didn't specifically ask you about?
Gillis: No, except I think one might get the impression from what I've said that I'm complaining about the field, when in fact that's not what I'm doing. I think this whole project is where we're trying to make things better. And the only way we can make things better if, is if we can take a true critical look at what we've done in the past and look at how we can improve those services and what we can do to put victims first.
Beatty: Thank you, John.
|This project was supported by Grant Number 2002-VF-GX-0009 awarded by the Office for Victims of Crime, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. Points of view in this product are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.|