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Improving Sex Crime Victim Interviews
12 Do's and Don'ts

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~ Introduction ~

In sex crimes, the victim interview is usually your main evidence and your main source of evidence leads, more so than with any other crime. At the same time, the sex crime victim's telling of their stories is usually much more inhibited, guarded, and vulnerable to distortion than for victims of other crimes. Complicating the picture even more, no other crime victim interview tends to make the interviewer feel more uncertain about how best to proceed.

Left unremedied, these challenges of sex crime interviews lead again and again to loss of evidence, loss of cases, and, all too frequently, to loss of the victim's willingness to continue with the process. But they also mean that a little effort at improving these interviews can quickly bring immense benefits to your sex crimes prosecutions. In addition, improving sex crime interview techniques can make the interview itself a source of healing, relief, and justice for the victims, as they'll feel their stories have been expertly listened to and chronicled.

The following list of Do's and Don'ts are addressed primarily to improving law enforcement interviews, but should be useful to anyone who interviews victims of sex crimes. Except for the first two, these tips aren't meant to be carried out in any particular order. Rather, they're meant to improve your overall approach, and to be applied throughout the interview. (The victim in these tips is at times referred to as 'she' for ease of language, but with the understanding that males are victims of sex crimes, too.)

1. DO - Give the victim as much control as possible right from the start.

The core injury of sex crimes is that the victims have been robbed of self determination at the most intimate level of their being. So, understandably, victims are generally hyper-vigilant around any sign of losing control again, especially around matters pertaining to the crime. They're particularly anxious about the unknown havoc a criminal case might further unleash in their lives. The more you can give the victim a sense of control in the process right from the start, (and throughout the interview), the more they'll be able to relax into openness and cooperation.

If circumstances are such that you'll be scheduling the interview ahead of time, as is usually the case, always ask if the victim will feel comfortable and safe at the suggested meeting time and place, including giving her the option to suggest alternatives. Inform victims of their right to have an advocate and a support person of their choosing present during the interview.

This latter advisement is mandated by law in many states, including in California. But mandated or not, giving these options at the outset is invaluable for establishing victim trust. It sends the clear message that you're aware of the difficulties of these interviews for the victim, and that, first and foremost, you want to give her some control over the environment of the interview.

Just as important, carefully spell out your full name and a direct phone number or email where you can be contacted. Include your work schedule and how soon the victim can hear back from you, along with a sincere statement that you want the victim to contact you at any time with any concerns. Take the time to have her write this information down in a place where she won't lose it. Thank her for her willingness to help you with the case. The stronger you build that bridge to you and the case, the more likely the victim is to walk on it.

If the victim is a minor build this bridge just as carefully with the parent or guardian. It's true you won't likely be sharing investigative details with a parent, even though most will be seeking it. So it's all the more important that you include and defer to the parent in as many other ways as possible.

2. DON'T - start your interview without again dedicating three or four minutes solely to addressing the victim's needs and concerns.

Sex crimes victims almost always arrive at the interview plagued with shame, anxieties, misinformation, and with fears of being judged. Even more significant, they usually come to these interviews still very uncertain about whether or not they really want to be going forward with the justice process.

This state of mind is in stark contrast, for example, to a robbery victim who is completely unconflicted about their outrage and can't wait to get the story on the record. As long as these anxieties and uncertainties of sex crimes victims remain unaddressed, chances are they're going to be very hesitant and holding back.

So after introducing yourself, put your agenda completely aside, and say something like this, "In a few minutes I'm going to be asking you a lot of questions about what happened, but first I want to answer any questions you might have." Or, "... but first I want make sure you're comfortable with the process."

Don't assume a victim's unresponsiveness to your openings means they're ready to talk about the crime. Continue with specific questions. Ask about their general well being since the rape, their safety concerns, the degree of support from family and friends, housing security, and importantly, concerns and questions the victim may have about reporting to police. Express your willingness to answer questions at any time, to take a break, to deal with safety issues that may come up, and your appreciation for her help getting the bad guy off the street.

One common concern which victims rarely voice to law enforcement is this - 'The police must not believe me, or they would have arrested him by now.' You can't afford to have your victim in that state of suspicion. So don't wait for the victim to bring this up. Do explain why there is often a delay in sex crimes arrests.

Don't rush your opening remarks. Slow the pace way down now, and the rest will likely flow.

The key thing to keep in mind is that before opening up, most victims need to be convinced that you understand the complex ruptures of safety and social issues in their lives resulting from the crime.

Just by asking relevant, sympathetic questions you actively establish that you are someone who does understand, someone who is concerned for her safety, and is competent and knowledgeable enough to remedy any problems. Only then should you ask if she's ready to get started.

3. DO keep your eyes on the prize.

At some point or points in a sex crime victim interview, you may feel that the victim did some things that you truly believe are stupid, ineffective, provocative, morally offensive, wrong, risky, unfair, cowardly or dishonest. And, in all likelihood, most sex crime victims have gotten into the situation and handled it very differently than you would have.

First, remind yourself that you're a cop and the victim is probably not. In fact, most of the victims will be young females with totally different responses than a trained police officer. Second, remember that no matter how much sexual assault training any of us may have, we all still come from a world in which sexual violence is shrouded in deeply rooted myths and reactions. These myths and reactions aren't undone simply by knowing the facts. Finding fault with the victims is one of those reactions that often unconsciously comes to the fore no matter how much training we have.

One way to keep those reactions from surfacing and obstructing your interview is to keep your focus on the goal of getting a dangerous suspect off the streets. The victim in front of you, no matter what you feel about their behavior, is your best bet for accomplishing that goal. Staying focussed on partnering with the victim to gather evidence helps make any judgements you may have about the victim fade into insignificance. And keeping those judgements completely out of your demeanor is key to getting the victim's unguarded cooperation.

4. DON'T trample the evidence.

The old medical maxim of 'first, do no harm' is paramount in sex crimes interviews. Your main evidence, the victim's willingness to openly tell the story, is as fragile as lifting a footprint from the sand. The last thing you want to do is step on it.

Victims often tell us vital aspects of their story that they then completely omit during the law enforcement interview. This withholding can be a victim's reaction to a complex mix of an interviewer's subliminal gestures, mis-phrased questions, failure to note a victim's mounting discomfort, or it just plain fear on the victim's part of what will be unleashed by divulging a sensitive circumstance. Providing just enough encouragement and information without getting in the way is a balance that comes with experience.

But a good start to preventing this common source of evidence loss is to keep in mind that there are usually dozens of junctures during the interview where the victim is consciously or unconsciously deciding whether or not to mention or expand on aspects of the story. The more you consciously begin watching and listening for those moments in your interviews, the more you'll become aware of them. It's at those moments when you need to stop, slow down, encourage, explain, or reassure. Because a victim's decision at each of these junctures can make or break your case.

Remember, a sex crime story weaves through a lot of territory most normal people wouldn't think of discussing with their most trusted friends under the safest of conditions. Your tone, words, and keen observation are what determine whether you shut this fragile process down, or create openings to full disclosure.

5. DO anticipate and counteract the victim's own misperceptions.

A sex crime victim's view of their own experience is also shrouded in the same myths and misperceptions as the rest of society, only now with more intensity than ever. Victims frequently are self-judging their behavior with the accumulated weight of overt and subliminal victim blaming they've heard over a lifetime. So you often have to actively counteract these myths to help the victim talk freely.

You don't compromise anything by introducing difficult questions with, "I want you to know that it doesn't matter to me at all what you were doing (drinking, wearing). The thing is that in order to catch a bad guy, I have to have the exact truthful details from you, so nobody can attack your story." Or, "Even if you were doing something that's illegal, it doesn't matter to me because we will ignore the minor crime in order to get at the more serious crime of what happened to you."

Sometimes it helps immensely to explain some of the nuts and bolts issues of prosecuting sex crimes, such as the heightened importance of victim credibility in these cases. Explaining these issues not only keeps victims from misinterpreting why you're asking certain sensitive questions, it also helps them feel more a partner in the process, and enhances cooperation that way, too.

6. DON'T make your line of questioning so rigid you lose key details.

Sex crimes victims usually don't offer information unless they're asked. A straight timeline train of questioning, of 'and then what happened', might be sufficient for an auto theft case or a bar fight, but will very often miss the behavioral evidence that can be so important in sex crimes.

Remember, too, most victims are naive as to what constitutes evidence, especially in regard to the subtle nature of evidence in a sex crimes case. What a victim may consider just strange occurrences, and not worth mentioning, can be strongly indicative of the suspect's intent, or guilt, or covering up. And often these can be events that occurred long before and long after the time of the rape itself.

So, again, explaining a little about the kinds of things that constitute evidence can bring the victim in to more actively sifting through the experience for the details you need. And so too can asking more open ended questions like, "Looking back, can you think of anything unusual the suspect did to work you into an isolated situation?" "Anything different or unusual you did after the rape to protect yourself?" "Anything unusual the suspect has said or done since the rape to cover for the rape?" "Any other people who may have seen any of this? " Etc.

7. DO draw out the elements of fear.

A victim tells you that the suspect yelled at her to take off her blouse and that she did as he said. Yet, there was no weapon and no direct threats. To a defense attorney that spells consent. A police officer, too, might look at it as ultimately consent even though she had earlier multiple times told the man "no". Even the victim may have her doubts as to whether this disqualifies the event as rape.

First, keep in mind that complying with an attacker is often the smart thing to do. And then consider that the point at which a victim, especially a young female victim, begins to comply with an attacker's demands is often very different from the point at which a police officer, or a man, would begin to comply.

From there, it's important to draw out from the victim what she thought might happen if she didn't comply with the suspect's command. In this case, the suspect had tricked her into an isolated strange place at 3 am with no transport, phone, or money. Nor did she speak English. "He was getting angrier and angrier," she says, "He was stronger than me. He was going to get what he wanted one way or the other and I didn't want to get beaten up." Isn't that the same reason you might 'willingly' decide to turn your wallet over to a mugger? But still you were robbed, right?

But first you have to ask. "What did you think might happen if you didn't comply? If you just walked out the door? If you screamed?" This key information about what the victim feared might happen, and why, can stop a defense attorney in their tracks. But it's information that can easily be missed if you don't probe and ask directly.

8. DON'T interrogate!

There are often contradictions in a victim's story, and many times there are clear indications the victim flat out isn't telling the truth about everything. A law enforcement officer's instinct in these instances is to jump on these contradictions. No question you need to unravel and get to the truth. But few things are more likely to shut a victim down than to get even a hint of being judged. Being subjected to an interrogation mode, however briefly, is more than most sex crimes victims can take.

First, it's important to understand that the number one reason sex crimes victims may lie, distort, or withhold information is because they're afraid of not being believed. Like anyone raised on this planet, they've heard a lifetime of rape victim-blaming in all its million and one forms. Now that they've been assaulted, themselves, they're doing whatever it takes to shield themselves from a similar fate.

Of course, you know it's not likely she was behind the bar with this guy studying for a history test! But if you jump on it and interrogate, you risk your case.

Another common cause of contradictions in victims' stories are the mind shattering effects of trauma, especially around time frames. Trauma fragments thoughts and their expression, which can easily lead to contradictions in the telling. Attempts to interrogate will greatly exacerbate the problem. Calm, gentle questioning will often clear it up.

Whatever the underlying cause of seeming contradictions, remember, your goal is to nail the rapist, which means you need to unravel the story in a way that will maintain the victim's trust.

True, there is such a thing as a completely false and malicious rape report, but it's rare. And it's usually pretty obvious and easy to ferret out. Interrogating doesn't really help here either.

9. DO partner with the victim.

Few things will be more productive than actively signaling, in as many ways as possible, that you are in a partnership with the victim rather than in a one sided, authoritarian role. For two important reasons.

One, due to the more open ended nature of these interviews, though you are the one asking the questions, it's the victim who is doing the sifting through her experience and through the suspect behavior to bring out potentially significant details. The more you can approach the interview as you guiding the victim in a search for the evidence, the more the victim is likely to identify what's most significant, and reduce the all to common occurrence of omitting key details.

And second, partnering rather than patronizing or officiating greatly enhances the victim's dignity by shifting victims from the passive helplessness of being a victim to being an active participant in pursuit of justice.

So tell the victim directly you need her help in thinking over the experience for things that might be evidence, and actively explain the kinds of things that constitute evidence. What is amazing is how many victims, including child victims, catch on to what this means, and then come up with things you never thought to ask.

10. DON'T end the interview without resetting the stage for the next step.

Few things make a a sex crimes victim more unnecessarily anxious, fearful, and leery of the process than not being informed of what's happening and what's going to happen next. Understandably, one of the all too common ways victims deal with this kind of anxiety is by simply withdrawing from case.

Despite the cardinal importance of keeping the victims informed and connected, most sex crimes victims, when they first call us, cannot answer the most basic questions about the status of their cases; where is the case in the process? Who's the detective? What are the charges under investigation? Has the case gone to the DA's office? Have the witnesses all been interviewed?

This is not the victim's fault! This is the detective's fault. It may even be that you've given the victim the information. But traumatized victims don't always hear what you're saying. So, you have to pay attention to whether the information you're giving is being retained. The best way to do this is to have the victim write things down, and even then, repeatedly remind her that she should call you with any questions.

11. DO - Protect the victim! Protect your case!

Tell sex crimes victims you want to know immediately regarding any attempts by the suspect or friends to harass her or dissuade her from pursuing the case.

Since most sex crime suspects know the victims, and share a social circle with the victim, they will almost always attempt to harass, vilify, attempt to dissuade the victim, and organize others to do the same. All too often the perpetrators are more persistent about controlling the case than the detectives.

So protect your victim and protect your case! Your bridge to the victim has to be stronger than the suspect's attempt to break it. Inform the victim that it's common for sex crimes perpetrators to begin harassing or retaliating. Explain that any attempt to dissuade her from the case is a new crime, even if it's just verbal. Tell her you want to know immediately if she's having trouble.

Then do whatever needs to be done to stop this perpetrator behavior in its tracks. Including immediately opening a new criminal case or arresting the suspect for attempting to dissuade a witness.

And even if the behavior doesn't reach the criminal level, step in and use your authority to stop the hostile social dynamics that so routinely flare up against sex crimes victims. These dynamics are another very common cause of victims withdrawing from the case.

So pick up the phone and call the school, friends, workplace, family, or wherever the trouble is brewing, and say you want it to stop so that your investigation can proceed. Protect the victim, and you protect your case!

12. DO amply prepare the victim ahead of time for the pretext call.

Nowhere is it more important to partner with the victim than in the pretext call. After all, in a pretext call it's the victim who is taking the investigatory lead. And it's the victim who has to think on her feet. Given that pretext calls are often your best opportunity to get slam-dunk evidence in sex crimes cases, it's a huge mistake not to get the victim thinking about these calls and their possible scenarios ahead of time.

Remember, most victims know the suspects well. By informing the victim about the nature of these calls, and engaging the victim's thinking before setting up the call, the victim will be mulling over likely suspect responses in her head in the lead up time, and figuring out effective counter responses as to how to best get the suspect to talk about the crime.

Another frequently missed opportunity in pretext calls is having the victim (and you) think about who else might be even better situated to trick the suspect into an admission. Talking with the victim about the pretext call at the end of the interview, brings a well prepared victim on the day of the call, and greatly enhances the chance of success.

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