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Women's violence task force to continue under new Dakota County grant

The Dakota County Sheriff's Office has received a Department of Justice grant that will allow them to continue combating domestic and sexual violence.

Awarded through the DOJ's Office of Violence Against Women, the $450,000 grant will be split over three years and replenish a previous two-year grant.

The Electronic Crime Task Force was launched after receiving the first grant, and has been partnering with 360 Communities and Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women.

The task force has been a great success, Dakota County Sheriff Tim Leslie said, with task force head Jeremy Roberts handling over 250 cases in that two-year period.

The main goal of the task force is to make sure they implement a victim-centered approach, 360 Communities' Director of Violence Prevention Ann Sheridan said.

The program has helped keep victims of domestic or sexual assault from being "re-victimized," Leslie said. Instead of the usual law enforcement approach of taking a photo of what's on a victim's phone, or taking the entire phone for evidence, the grant has allowed them to bring equipment to a victim, "dump" the information from the phone or other device, and immediately give it back to its owner.

"The big thing is she shouldn't be revictimized by government's inability to get the information out of the phone," Leslie said.

Not only can they keep their devices, Roberts said it has drastically decreased turnaround time on cases from up to 18 months, to around two days. He also said with that added data from a data dump, they can build stronger cases against offenders.

Discoveries from devices have been anything from a tracker or virus placed by the abuser to messages that violate protection orders against them.

In an Apple Valley case, investigators found a GPS tracking device at the house of a man with a history of stalking and a violation of a protection order against him. Roberts said he was intending to put on a woman's car to track her. Finding the GPS kept the man from stalking the victim.

"It's kind of an intermediary to see if anyone's watching," Leslie said. "And we are."

Roberts and Sheridan have also partnered to provide education to victims at 360 Communities.

"We tell them signs to look for, ways they can protect their clients, like how to turn on airplane mode, or turn off GPS tracking," Roberts said.

Sheridan said before the task force launched, many women at 360 Communities didn't know how their abusers kept finding them, and many people in the community didn't believing that they were being stalked or in danger.

"And now we see people in the community say 'Oh my god, this really is happening,'" Sheridan said. "People feel believed and heard."

"I seriously don't know how we would function without it," she added. "Now that we have it we can't imagine not having it."

The grant will also allow them to hire a part-time coordinator for the task force.

"What we found in these cases, is it takes a long time to be adjudicated ... lots to keep an eye on," Leslie said.

As far as Roberts and Leslie know, they are the only Minnesota department with a program of this kind. Roberts has also done some outreach to other departments to spread awareness about the task force.

"These services are specific to Dakota County right now," Sheridan said. "It definitely needs to be beyond."

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