Initial Officer Response to Sexual Violence: Why It’s So Important and How Law Enforcement Leaders Can Make a Difference
WRITTEN BY: Captain Mike Schentrup (RET)
Originally published in Chief of Police magazine in 2018.
As a longtime criminal investigator and eventually criminal division commander, I have investigated and overseen the investigation of hundreds of sexual assaults. One thing has become clear, nothing is more important to the investigation than the response of the front-line uniform patrol officer. This is not to understate the importance of the Forensic Nurse, the Victim Advocate, the detective, nor the prosecutor; however, none of this matters if the original patrol officer doesn’t know what to do and how his/her response can affect the entire investigation. Beyond that, we now know the survivor’s first contact with law enforcement is a critical moment in both the investigation and their recovery process.
A 2007 study by Karen Gelb showed only 19% of adult victims of sexual violence actually report the crime to the police; however, law enforcement only takes an investigative report only 13% of the time. So even after the survivor gains the strength to come forward and make a report to us, about 6% of the time we either refuse to take a report, minimize the crime, or talk them out of reporting altogether.
How do we change this? What is the proper patrol officer response? Here are some simple things police leaders can teach our first responders to do.
First and foremost, the responding officer should let the victim know they are safe. Next, show genuine empathy, both in what they say and how they act. As officers, we are usually really good at using the right language, but that is not enough. Victims are very intuitive and are looking for signs that we do not believe them or whether we blame them for being the victim of rape. The initial contact should start with an empathy statement, such as “I’m so sorry this happened to you.” Showing empathy both through statement and body language will begin the building of trust.
Start by Believing. For the initial interview, the officer must come in with a “Start by Believing” mentality (www.startbybelieving.org). There will be plenty of time, as the investigation moves forward, to work through initial inconsistencies and contradictions. It is normal for victims of trauma to suffer minor memory loss and seem confused in their recounting of events. The initial interview is not the time to challenge them, since this can be done later by detectives once additional evidence has been developed. Also, the officer must stay away from asking “WHY” questions. Any question that begins with “why” will immediately put the victim in a self-defense mode. The survivor has asked themselves “why” hundreds of times prior to reporting.
Ask open ended questions and just listen. The officer only needs to answer some initial questions, including: where’s the crime scene, are there any witnesses, is there suspect information, establish the elements of the crime, and determine whether a forensic exam is needed. Once this basic information has been obtained, assure the survivor detectives will follow-up with a more in-depth interview at a later time.
Get a victim advocate involved. Some jurisdictions dispatch both an officer and advocate simultaneously; however, this is not the norm. Some officers will ask the survivor whether they want an advocate; I strongly suggest otherwise. The response of an advocate should be automatic. The survivor can refuse the advocate once on-scene, but I have never actually seen this occur.
Next, it’s time to write the incident report. Please avoid using language of distrust; terms like “inconsistencies,” “alleged,” “her account could not be verified.” These opinions are unnecessary and detectives will have time to follow up on each case and thoroughly investigate the crime. Remember, the victim suffered significant trauma so “inconsistencies” should be expected.
Finally, never ask for a Refusal to Prosecute (also known as a Declination of Intent or Complaint Withdrawal) from a victim of sexual violence. Don’t even accept them. If the survivor does not want to proceed, document it in the narrative. Allow the victim advocate to work with the survivor and in time, he/she may gain the strength to move forward with the investigation.
As law enforcement professionals, we have a duty to protect the vulnerable. We have a duty to take predators off the street. Our agency’s front-line officers and deputies can make-or-break the case. As law enforcement leaders, let’s give our officers and deputies the tools to succeed. We can make a difference in the lives of these survivors.