BALTIMORE, April 10, 2013 – A new approach to interviewing sexual assault victims is gleaning more information about the crimes and leading to greater numbers of offender prosecutions.
At the End Violence Against Women international conference here last week, Russell Strand, chief of the behavioral sciences education and training division for the Army’s Military Police School at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., spoke with American Forces Press Service about the new Defense Department-backed procedure to investigate sexual assaults.
Calling sexual assault “a secret crime,” Strand said the experience for a victim is the “most embarrassing, intimate, life-changing, traumatic thing that can happen to a person.” Aside from a murder, he added, he doesn’t know of anything that’s “more debilitating and earth-shattering” than a sexual assault.
In 2011, nearly 3,200 sexual assaults were reported in the military, but Defense Department officials say the number of sexual assaults each year is closer to 19,000, based on anonymous surveys of active-duty service members. Officials also noted that only 1,500 of those cases came up for disciplinary review.
Because law enforcement investigations are designed more for witnesses rather than victims, Strand said, he developed the forensic experiential trauma interview as a way to interview victims without making them relive the assault.
Through neuroscience research, he said, he found that part of the forefront of the brain shuts down or is slow to recall key parts of a trauma during an attack. But a primitive part of the brain stem almost instantly records the event accurately, he said.
With that scientific information, Strand said, he tried the law enforcement “debriefing” approach on sexual assault victims by gaining their trust and talking about how they felt, rather than asking leading questions, such as “What happened?”
“We show genuine empathy, and say things such as, ‘I’m sorry that happened to you,’” Strand explained. “The second thing we say is, ‘Help me understand,’ and ‘What are you able to remember about your experience?’”
Strand said Criminal Investigation Division agents and other trained military investigators then stop questioning and sit back to listen to the victim’s recollection.
Rather than asking about the attack in a chronological order, Strand said, he lets victims go in any direction they want, because that aligns with how they’ve memorized it.
Investigators then put the assault into a sequence of chronological events, he added.
“We want to get to their memories, so we ask about the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and their feelings,” Strand said.
Through this approach, he said, investigators want to look for evidence of trauma and the absence of consent in a sexual assault. Working with the senses is a “powerful” technique that triggers memories the victims don’t realize they could recall, he noted.
Once the psychophysiological evidence is gathered, Strand said, the investigator can then ask traditional questions while the victim’s barriers are relaxed, such as when, where and how the assault happened.
Since 2009, more than 700 special agents and prosecutors from each branch of the military have taken forensic experiential trauma interview training, and 500 more are scheduled to complete the course by the end of September, Strand said. He also said DOD has funded more than 400 seats for the FETI special victims’ unit course through fiscal year 2017.
Strand said his goal through FETI is to bring the military prevalence rates down for victims — both men and women — while making sure that cultural change occurs regarding sexual assault. It might take five to 10 years for the prevalence rates to decrease and he expects reporting rates to increase, he added.
“What we want victims to know is they can be confident we are working really hard to understand what they’ve gone through, to understand their experience and help them remember [it] in the most natural, scientific way,” Strand said.
Strand said he also wants sexual offenders to know that law enforcement investigations of sexual assault have become much more sophisticated in identifying their behaviors, and that the crime is now investigated in a manner in which it never has been before. “They are at much greater risk of being caught than they were five or 10 years ago,” he added.
With DOD backing and collaborating with the civilian sector, Strand said, “we want to lead the nation, and I think other countries are looking at us to get this right.”
“And we have the capability to do that,” he added.