(a) Officers should treat all victims or potential victims of crime with respect, empathy, and compassion.
(b) Officers should conduct interviews with victims using trauma-informed techniques, and they should implement a streamlined reporting process in order to minimize re-traumatization.
(c) Officers should accurately record and appropriately classify all reported crimes. Officers should treat all crime reports fairly and without bias, and they should avoid engaging in premature credibility assessments or relying on stereotypes in evaluating victim reports.
(d) Agencies should maintain open and active lines of communication with victims during the course of an investigation in order to keep them informed about the status of the investigation and to follow up on their welfare.
(e) Agencies should form collaborative partnerships with those individuals who provide victim assistance and advocacy, and should facilitate the involvement of such individuals from the beginning of an investigation to see that victims receive the support they require.
a. Animating objectives. For individuals who are victimized by crime, police officers often are their first point of contact. Every interaction between a police officer and a crime victim—from the moment an officer first arrives at the scene of a possible crime, through initial interviews and follow-up conversations—has the potential to shape not only the outcome of a criminal investigation but also the victim’s ability to recover from any physical or psychological harm. When officers are insufficiently attentive to the needs of crime victims, or when they discount victims’ reports due to bias or stereotype, they can significantly compound the trauma that victims experience—while also undermining the important criminal-justice system goals of identifying perpetrators and preventing additional crime and victimization. Officers cannot possibly meet all of the complex needs that crime victims have. But they can ensure that they treat all victims with respect, empathy, and compassion, and connect them to the various services they require.
b. Trauma-informed questioning. The goal of conducting initial interviews and subsequent interactions with crime victims should be to obtain accurate and reliable evidence without causing undue re-traumatization and distress. Victims may be reluctant to report crimes due to the belief that they will be shamed or disbelieved. Effective and empathetic interviewing can increase the willingness of victims to cooperate with criminal-justice authorities, improve the quality of crime reports, and mitigate secondary trauma.
When eliciting a victim’s recollections of a criminal incident, officers can reduce undue distress and re-traumatization by maintaining a respectful, compassionate, and empathetic demeanor and by utilizing trauma-informed questioning techniques. Research suggests that even small changes in how officers conduct interviews can impact significantly how victims perceive their experience with law enforcement, and improve the quantity and quality of information obtained. For example, questions that begin with “why did you” or “why didn’t you” may be perceived as assigning blame to the victim for what happened. Similarly, given the impact of trauma on how memory is stored, crime victims may find it difficult to recount what happened in chronological fashion. By starting with open-ended questions that invite victims to share their experience in their own words, in whatever order feels most comfortable, officers can make it much easier for them to recount and relay what occurred.
Agencies should implement policies and training, in collaboration with mental-health professionals and victim advocates, to assist officers in developing appropriate strategies for gathering information from victims. In addition, although some repetition of questioning may be necessary during the investigation and prosecution of a crime, agencies should collaborate with other criminal-justice system entities to develop more streamlined reporting processes to minimize the number of times victims have to recount traumatic events.
c. Accurate classification and unbiased treatment. Agencies and officers also have a duty to accurately classify all reported crimes, to treat all victims fairly, and to avoid discounting or downplaying victims’ reports based on stereotype, bias, or premature credibility assessments. Although officers and agencies generally respond to and investigate reported crimes, there is a long and troubling history of their failing to do so for certain classes of victims or offenses. These include, for example, allegations of sexual assault, as well as crimes committed against various vulnerable groups, including sex workers, LGBTQ individuals, and those experiencing homelessness or mental illness. Agencies also have at times misclassified crime reports in order to create the perception of falling crime rates or to reduce their investigative burden. These practices undermine agency legitimacy, impose further harms on crime victims, and interfere with an agency’s public-safety mission. The failure by agencies or officers to treat all victims fairly also may constitute unlawful discrimination. Agencies should implement policies, procedures, and training to ensure that officers accurately and thoroughly document all victim reports, and that all reports are evaluated in an unbiased manner.
d. Ongoing communication. Criminal investigations can often be lengthy and, in the absence of communication or responsiveness from investigating officers, victims may experience uncertainty and frustration. Agencies should implement procedures for keeping victims informed on an ongoing basis about the status of their investigations, including the anticipated next steps in the criminal process, as well as any decision not to bring charges against the accused.
e. Victim support. Crime victims may have a variety of resulting physical, emotional, or economic needs—many of which law-enforcement officials are not in the best position to address. Agencies should work collaboratively with organizations and individuals that provide victims with support as they navigate the criminal-justice process and connect them to appropriate resources for recovery and rehabilitation. Agencies also should ensure that crime victims are informed of any rights or benefits to which they may be entitled as a matter of state or federal law, including the opportunity to adjust the immigration status for victims of certain crimes who cooperate with the police.
1. Identifying victims. Traditionally, police have taken seriously their role in investigating serious crime. However, they have not always recognized or addressed the much broader set of needs of victims—or who is a “victim” worthy of government protection. For example, a 2015 study of the policing of sexual violence found that victims of non-stranger rape, as well as adolescent victims and victims suspected of prostitution, were not deemed credible or worthy of investigation, and their rape kits were never tested. Deborah Tuerkheimer, Incredible Women: Sexual Violence and the Credibility Discount, 166 U. Pa. L. Rev. 1, 34 (2017). This Section recognizes the importance of thoughtfully identifying and engaging with victims, and it ensures that officers do not jump to conclusions about who qualifies as a victim.
2. Trauma-informed questioning. By neglecting complaints, or even actively discouraging victims who are seeking redress, officers have at times exacerbated the trauma faced by victims. Officers also have re-traumatized individuals by casting doubt on their accounts of what occurred. It is common for victims of serious trauma to be unable to recall an attack fully, to confuse the sequence of events, or to remember certain facts but not others. Sammy Caiola, How Rape Affects Memory and The Brain, And Why More Police Need To Know About This, Nat’l Pub. Radio (Aug. 22, 2021, 7:00 AM), https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2021/08/22/1028236197/how-rape-affects-memory-and-the-brain-and-why-more-police-need-to-know-about-this. However, when officers question why victims don’t recall the details right away, it can cause secondary trauma. Id. Other negative social reactions include victim-blaming (victims being told they were not responsible or cautious enough), or attempting to minimize or distract from the assault. Christopher DeCou et al., Assault-Related Shame Mediates the Association between Negative Social Reactions to Disclosure of Sexual Assault and Psychological Distress, 9 Psychological Trauma: Theory, Rsch., Prac. & Pol’y 166 (2017), https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27607768/. Depending on these negative responses, victims may regret their initial decision to disclose, and face a higher chance of developing further trauma. Sarah E. Ullman & Liana Peter-Hagene, Social Reactions to Sexual Assault Disclosure, Coping, Perceived Control and PTSD Symptoms in Sexual Assault Victims, 42 J. Trauma Stress 495 (2014), https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24910478/.
Many studies have demonstrated the importance of using trauma-informed techniques. Relationship-building is key: victims need an empathetic and nonjudgmental response from law-enforcement officers. Debra Patterson, The Impact of Detectives’ Manner of Questioning on Rape Victims’ Disclosure, 17 Violence Against Women 1349 (2011), https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1077801211434725. Officers can take steps to build rapport and ensure that victims can answer questions at their own pace, with their needs and overall well-being tended to. Megan R. Greeson, Rebecca Campbell & Giannina Fehler-Cabral, Cold or Caring? Adolescent Sexual Assault Victims’ Perceptions of their Interactions with the Police, 29 Violence & Victims 636 (2014). https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25199391/.
3. Training and policies. Agencies can take concrete steps to train officers in using trauma-informed techniques and create policies that are victim-centered. For example, the New York Police Department has completed expanded training for their Special Victims Division, ensuring all detectives are trained in Forensic Experiential Trauma Interviewing, an evidence-based technique that supports survivors while increasing the information collected. Zolan Kanno-Youngs, The NYPD’s Real SVU is Changing Its Approach to Sex Crimes, Wall Street J. (Dec. 10, 2017), https://www.wsj.com/articles/questioning-sex-assault-victims-using-a-new-approach-gets-results-1512934428.
Much of the focus of agency efforts has been on interactions between police and victims during the initial questioning. But as this Principle makes clear, government responsibilities go much further. Officers must use trauma-informed practices from the first point of contact. For example, the Salt Lake City Police Department has included a statement in its rape and sexual-assault policy instructing first responders and early responding officers to be primarily concerned with the well-being and safety of the victim and to perform the in-depth interview at a later time. Chuck Wexler et al., Executive Guidebook: Practical Approaches for Strengthening Law Enforcement’s Response to Sexual Assault, Police Exec. Rsch. F. (May 2018), https://www.policeforum.org/assets/SexualAssaultResponseExecutiveGuidebook.pdf.
Police should be careful not to engage in undue credibility determinations too early in the investigative process, particularly because victims may experience short-term memory impairments after a traumatic event. Id. One way agencies can combat this is by establishing a clear policy that detectives should not conclude an investigation prematurely or dismiss a victim’s credibility based on: (1) any difficulty recalling the events of the assault; (2) any prior relationship with the suspect; (3) the victim’s affect after the incident; (4) a lack of physical injury; and (5) any decision not to report immediately. Id. Additionally, agencies should prohibit any sort of truth-verification exam, such as a polygraph, which can undermine trust in law enforcement. Id.
4. Victim services. Police also have an obligation to keep victims updated about next steps in the investigation. Tangible steps agencies can take include returning victims’ calls and emails right away and carefully explaining decisions not to arrest the suspect or further pursue the case. Id. Victims who are kept updated are more likely to participate later in the criminal-justice process. Id. Agencies also might partner with victims’ services or support organizations to provide services to victims.
Some of victims’ needs cannot be met by police—but police can develop strong ties with other social-service providers, both in and outside of government. Victims may have various needs, including housing, transportation, childcare, mental-health counseling, medical treatment, and wage loss, if they were unable to work as a result of the crime. Monica McLaughlin, Housing Needs of Victims of Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault, Dating Violence and Stalking, Nat’l Low Income Hous. Coal. (2014), http://nlihc.org/sites/default/files/2014AG-107.pdf (stating victims sometimes remain with their abusers due to difficulty accessing housing, transportation, and childcare). Many jurisdictions have victim advocates (sometimes connected to the district attorney’s office or police department) to help victims navigate the justice system, assist victims in applying for benefits, provide ongoing emotional support, and refer individuals to other agencies and community services. See, e.g., City of Denver, Victim Services, https://www.denvergov.org/Government/Agencies-Departments-Offices/Police-Department/Programs-Services/Victim-Services.