Tuesday, November 19, 2002

Man who `simply' listened

It was simple, Tom Oberschmidt says.

I'm not sure I believe him. Changing attitudes? Changing the way a whole police division does its work? It sounds complicated to me.

We are talking Thursday at the Annual Meeting of Women Helping Women, an agency for victims of sexual assault, domestic violence and stalking. They don't lack clients.

Last year, somebody from Women Helping Women went to area hospitals 172 times with sexual assault victims. They logged more than 11,000 phone calls on the Protect hot line and more than 1,600 courtroom assists to victims.

An extraordinary step

They may be Women Helping Women, but they are just crazy about this man. He's easy to spot. Tall, with a thatch of white hair, Lt. Thomas R. Oberschmidt retired from the Cincinnati Police Division in 1988.

Every two minutes somebody tugs on his sleeve, pats his shoulder, grabs his hand. He has a lot of friends here.

No wonder.

In the mid-1970s, a small group of women complained to authorities that police officers investigating cases of rape "just didn't get it." Tom didn't get it. Not really. How were police supposed to catch the rapist if they couldn't ask questions? It didn't make sense to him.

"There was friction," he says, between police and these women, who were founders of Women Helping Women. "They didn't know what we were doing and we didn't know what they were doing."

Then he took an extraordinary step.

He listened.

"The first thing we figured out was that we had at least one thing in common," he says. "We were both trying to protect the victim."

Jill Bley, a clinical psychologist, remembers those first meetings. They talked about ways for police to get information without making the victims feel as though she was being blamed for the crime against her.

"We learned to ask questions in a different way," Tom says.

Instead of "why did you let him in?" they tried asking "how did he get you to open the door?" Less accusing. And they'd still get the answers they needed.

The cops talked about their frustration with cases that collapsed when victims dropped charges. They started working together to help victims through court procedures.

"Cincinnati changed when Tom Oberschmidt got involved," Jill says, "because when he got it, he really got it. He went over and above what anybody expected to make sure other police officers got it, too."

Every year, Women Helping Women chooses a police officer for the Thomas R. Oberschmidt Award. This year, Cincinnati Police Officer Terry Hill walked to the front of the room to accept.

A beat cop who specializes in domestic violence crimes, Officer Hill was honored for his compassion and interviewing techniques. Somebody called him a good listener.

Which is, of course, Tom's formula. No outside advisers. No red tape. No posturing. Just some people of goodwill with opposing viewpoints who listened to each other.


E-mail lpulfer@enquirer.com or phone 768-8393.

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