Willacy launches program to help domestic violence victims

Cell phone app alerts law enforcement, records video, audio evidence

RAYMONDVILLE — As domestic violence cases climb, technology is giving victims a new weapon.

This month, the Willacy County District Attorney’s office is launching a program offering victims a cell phone app which allows them to contact law enforcement while recording video and audio evidence aimed at prosecuting their abusers.

The Victim Initiated Notification program stems from a Hidalgo County District Attorney’s Office initiative funded through the Texas Council on Family Violence.

“It addresses three crucial areas — victim safety, immediate law enforcement notification and successful prosecutions,” Annette Hinojosa, Willacy County’s district attorney, stated, referring to the app her office offers to domestic violence victims.

The program allows domestic violence victims to tap the app, immediately altering law enforcement of the incident’s time and location while recording 30-seconds of video and audio evidence.

“For Willacy County, this app gives our victims and survivors this high-tech tool to empower them to instantly notify law enforcement of their location resulting in a quicker response, which is crucial in a rural community,” Hinojosa stated.

Meanwhile, the app captures video and audio evidence which the district attorney’s office can use to help prosecute cases.

“The 30-second video will provide the investigation invaluable evidence, which we expect will lead to successful prosecutions,” Hinojosa stated. “In many of these cases, the prosecution relies on only the victim’s testimony. With the video this app activates, the evidence captured will provide critical evidence for the case.”

Across Willacy and Hidalgo counties, prosecutors are counting on the program to send a message.

“Most importantly, we hope that in distributing this app among Willacy County victims and survivors, it will become a deterrence for violence and produce a much safer Willacy County,” Hinojosa stated.

Law enforcement ‘game-changer’

For the county’s law enforcement agencies, the program offers a new weapon that can save lives.

“I feel it’s a phenomenal tool that will be a game-changer,” Sheriff Joe Salazar said. “I believe it’s going to be a very beneficial tool for victims and law enforcement. It will alert our dispatcher. It provides up-to-the-minute location so our dispatcher will be able to get personnel out to get help to them. At the press of a button, it collects evidence by capturing video and audio.”

Pandemic fuels domestic violence

At the Family Crises Center in Harlingen, Director Laura Martinez is counting on the program to help victims of domestic violence as they await judges to sign protective orders.

“In a way, this puts the power back in the hands of the survivor who often feels helpless,” Monica Andrade, the center’s lead outreach advocate in Raymondville, said. “This app will be a total game-changer for our clients when it comes to recording evidence and submitting it to their respective (law enforcement agency.)”

During the coronavirus pandemic, job losses and safety restrictions have helped fuel domestic violence cases, Andrade said.

“The pandemic has contributed to the rise in domestic violence. We have seen an increase,” she said. “During the economic slowdown, when individuals were being let go of their jobs, in a lot of situations they were relying on their abusers to survive — and in a lot of situations victims were forced to quarantine or shelter-in-place with their abusers.”

Program’s development

In October 2019, Juan Cano, a former Hidalgo County investigator, helped develop the app before the Texas Council on Family Violence landed a grant to help fund the Hidalgo County District Attorney’s office’s pilot program.

“I would see victims — women and children being affected by domestic violence,” Cano, with Justice Alert Technology in Weslaco, said. “We wanted to develop something to assist in getting law enforcement quicker to victims. When you’re dealing with something like this, time is very imperative to get law enforcement to victims as quickly as possible.”

App’s video, audio evidence helps build cases

In Hidalgo County, District Attorney Ricardo Rodriguez offers the app to residents threatened by domestic violence and those for whom judges have granted protective orders.

“It’s just another tool, a resource we can offer to individuals,” he said, describing the app as “another source that’s effective in protecting victims.”

The app’s video and audio recordings serve as “evidence when we don’t have video and audio to help us in the courtroom,” he said.

“We hope it keeps growing to help,” Rodriguez said of the program.

fdelvalle@valleystar.com