The way police and law enforcement are interviewing trauma victims, including sexual assault victims, is changing based on scientific data.
Right now, advocates say victims can be revictimized through the experience when officers and other officials ask for specific details about the event or trauma.
Traditional techniques focus on personal details, things like “what hand was it” and “how tall was your attacker,” former police officer Russell Strand explained.
Strand is a founding faculty member of Certified FETI (forensic experiential trauma interviewing), a course that trains officers on “science-based trauma interviews.”
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He says trauma-informed techniques aren’t about getting the narrative sequence of events, it’s just about what victims remember. He says officers can then get what they need from that.
“Instead of focusing on all the details, just understand what their experience is and then do some clarifying questions. Don’t ask them questions that they don’t know, like time, how long did this last or how many times did they shoot you,” he said.
Trauma-informed is more than just asking open-ended questions – Strand says it includes asking for feelings, experiences and psychophysiological evidence.
It’s important to focus on experience in general and not the details because of the way trauma affects the brain, he says. Trauma-related experiences are locked in the brain, whereas other details can drift.
“Things that are dangerous or scary are perfectly encoded,” Richard Alan Friedman, psychology professor at Weill-Cornell Medical School, told NBC News. “Things that are not emotional are not attended to.”
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Strand has trained officers all over Canada and the U.S. – and he’s seen positive results.
He said after adopting trauma-informed techniques while working for the military police, there was a significant increase in reporting crime, along with both prosecutions and convictions.
In New York City, where police have been working with Strand for the past two years, he says he’s seen a significant increase in both the number of trauma-related cases the police are investigating as well as the number of cases that have been referred for prosecution.
“In fact for the Harvey Weinstein case they re-interviewed a lot of the victims using FETI and they were able to get significant information from them, so they had had better information to bring forward for indictment,” Strand explained.
An unrelated study in the Utah Journal of Criminal Law also found that after trauma-informed training, the prosecution rate of sexual assaults more than tripled.
There’s been increased scrutiny on interview techniques after Christine Blasey Ford was questioned by the Senate Judiciary Committee after accusing Justice Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her.
Republicans who supported Kavanaugh – including Donald Trump – pointed to what they called inconsistencies in Ford’s testimony, such as the address of the house she was assaulted in.
But Strand says small, personal details aren’t necessary in the long run.
“Instead of chasing down rabbit holes like ‘Well, she said the car was blue and it was actually brown,’ and then spending I don’t know how many hours trying to figure out that, when in reality [the victim] didn’t remember what colour the car was,” Strand explained.
“We try to avoid that kind of information and only try to find out what they actually do remember.”
Ford has said she was terrified to testify, but that she was “100 per cent” certain that Kavanaugh assaulted her.
The Canadian Women’s Foundation’s Anuradha Dugal previously told Global News the legal process is “extremely traumatizing for women” who have been sexually assaulted.
But Strand stressed that’s not intentional, but that the police are just not properly trained.
“Most police academies and universities and criminal justice programs are still teaching very basic interview techniques,” he explained.
“They have been trained on how to interrogate somebody, on how to get witness statements. So we just have to train them, and once they’re trained, they are doing amazing work.”
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