How to Conduct Trauma-Informed Sexual Assault Investigations 

Initial victim contacts, physical and digital evidence collection, and proper trauma-informed interview techniques all play a significant role.

How to Conduct Trauma-Informed Sexual Assault Investigations 


Leading practices are constantly changing. As more data is collected over time, we better understand the most effective ways to face challenges and improve outcomes. This is true for police interview techniques, particularly when the person being interviewed is a victim or potential victim of a crime.

At the 2023 Campus Safety Conference West in Las Vegas, Al Williams, Assistant Chief of Police for the Ball State University Police Department, shared leading practices for trauma-informed and victim-centered sexual assault investigations. In part, he compared the “old way” of conducting them to the “new way.”

In 1990, using the “old way,” Williams summarized, investigators typically:

  • Interviewed immediately
  • Remained neutral
  • Went in chronological order of events
  • Asked “who, what, where, when, and why”
  • One dimensional: Only wanted to know the facts
  • Used rapid-fire questioning

Comparatively, in 2023, investigators are now encouraged to:

  • Allow 1-2 sleep cycles before conducting interviews
  • Use a victim-centered approach
  • Ask victim to tell them about their experience, as they remember it
  • Ask about the five senses experienced during the assault
  • Avoid “why” questions
  • Three-dimensional: Thoughts, feelings, sensory information
  • Go at a slow pace and be patient

Williams emphasized many important details regarding interviewing victims who have experienced trauma. For example, most victims of sexual assault do not report immediately, especially if it involves a non-stranger assault. This can be due to denial, shock, self-blame, embarrassment, fear of not being believed, or fear of the criminal justice system. It is important to respect someone’s decision if they choose not to participate in an investigation and to note that an investigation can be re-activated when/if the victim is ready — as long as it is within the statute of limitation.

It is also important to understand how trauma impacts the brain and recognize that strange behaviors in these investigations are almost always caused by trauma — not by lying or being untruthful. Some decisions made during traumatic events do not make sense — it is critical to understand there is no normal victim response to trauma.

By utilizing the “new way,” investigators are more likely to help a victim feel safe. Empowerment and empathy go a long way and the individual’s pain and trauma should be acknowledged without judgment.

To learn more about how the body and brain react to trauma and myths about sexual assault, check out this article, “How Trauma-Informed Campus Policing Can Make Investigations More Effective,” written by long-term sexual abuse survivor Sherrie Allsup and Chief Wiley Gammon, chief of police at Atlanta Metropolitan State College.

Leading Up to the Interview

Before the interview process even begins, Williams said steps taken during the initial officer/victim contact are crucial. The first priority is always to make sure the victim is safe and check for medical needs. Officer(s) should also notify a victim advocate as soon as possible and gather initial information to hand off to them. The victim should not be asked if they want to participate in a criminal prosecution and this initial interview should be brief — not a detailed step-by-step statement. In many cases, this initial contact “makes or breaks” the law enforcement relationship with the victim, Williams emphasized. It is crucial for the victim to feel supported through the entire process.  

After initial contact, Williams said there are four interview priorities for initial law enforcement response:

  1. Establish elements of sexual assault are met
  2. Evaluate the need for a forensic exam
  3. Identify the crime scene, evidence, witnesses, and suspect
  4. Establish identity and contact info for the suspect, if known

If it is determined a forensic exam is needed or would benefit the victim/investigation, it should be conducted within 72-120 hours of the assault and by a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE). The purpose of these exams is to obtain information about what sexual acts were committed and to collect biological evidence. They are also meant to obtain information about physical injuries to document the use of physical force.

In addition to the forensic exam, there are other pieces of evidence Williams said should be collected for a sexual assault investigation, including:

  • Photographs of the victim’s injuries (injuries may develop days later) and the crime scene
  • Victim clothing, underwear (torn, untorn)
  • Sheets
  • Condoms, wrappers, gels
  • Surveillance video footage
  • Text messages
  • Social media posts

The Interview

When most people think of police interviews, they picture cold, dark, and uncomfortable interrogation rooms. A standard police interview room is meant for suspects. They are less comfortable with gray walls and tile floors. A “soft” interview room, on the other hand, is designed for victims. It should be in a more comfortable setting with soft chairs for the victim, their advocate, and the investigator. The floors should be carpeted and the walls should be colorful.

During the interview, investigators should introduce themselves and explain the process while allowing a victim advocate to be present, said Williams. Compassion and acknowledging the difficult conversation are critical. For example, an investigator could say, “You have been through something very difficult. Things may be jumbled up a bit right now, just do the best you can. You may remember more as time passes or as we go along. Just do the best you can.”

Williams said investigators should also:  

  • Stress the importance of truth and let the victim know it is okay if they can’t remember something
  • Avoid leading questions
  • Let the victim talk uninterrupted
  • Document traumatic impact (how is their eating, drinking, sleeping, etc.)
  • Document changes in routine and appearance (e.g. changing hair color or style)
  • Interview for clarification and do not interrogate
  • Avoid victim-blaming “why” questions (Why did you…)
  • Ask what “no” looked like (e.g. did they say no, stop, shook head no, removed hand, looked away)
  • Explain or clarify questions
    • If you ask, “Are those the clothes you were wearing when this occurred?” they might hear, “They think it’s my fault because of how I was dressed.”
    • If you ask, “Did he physically hurt you or threaten you with a weapon?” they might hear, “It must not be real rape. He didn’t hurt or threaten you.”
  • Discuss timeline and next steps; provide and obtain contact info and the best way of keeping victim and victim advocate informed

Williams also shared the need to keep Title IX/Clery departments in the loop regarding reported sexual assaults — one reason being there can be a Title IX violation without an arrest or evidence of a crime. Allowing Title IX investigators to view interviews is recommended as well as keeping them updated on your investigation process/progress.

At the upcoming Campus Safety Conference at EDspaces, Ronette Gerber, Director of the University of North Carolina at Pembroke’s Office of Title IX and Clery Compliance, and Erica Cooper, Director of Clery Compliance for the NC State University Police Department, will present on the importance of having a campus chief of police who supports Clery compliance officers’ duties.

The pair will highlight and explore some of the challenges and opportunities that law enforcement personnel face as they navigate their report writing and regulatory requirements under the Clery Act. They will also provide focused training to improve effectiveness in gathering information and writing the incident report narratives that facilitate classifying reports for Clery statistical disclosure.

To register for the event, happening Nov. 7-9 in Charlotte, N.C., visit

If you appreciated this article and want to receive more valuable industry content like this, click here to sign up for our FREE digital newsletters!

About the Author


Amy is Campus Safety’s Executive Editor. Prior to joining the editorial team in 2017, she worked in both events and digital marketing.

Amy has many close relatives and friends who are teachers, motivating her to learn and share as much as she can about campus security. She has a minor in education and has worked with children in several capacities, further deepening her passion for keeping students safe.

Leading in Turbulent Times: Effective Campus Public Safety Leadership for the 21st Century

This new webcast will discuss how campus public safety leaders can effectively incorporate Clery Act, Title IX, customer service, “helicopter” parents, emergency notification, town-gown relationships, brand management, Greek Life, student recruitment, faculty, and more into their roles and develop the necessary skills to successfully lead their departments. Register today to attend this free webcast!

One response to “How to Conduct Trauma-Informed Sexual Assault Investigations ”

  1. yinxi Su says:

    Conducting trauma-informed sexual assault investigations is crucial for ensuring that survivors are treated with empathy and respect while collecting the necessary evidence for prosecution. Trauma-informed approaches acknowledge the psychological and emotional impact of sexual assault on survivors and aim to minimize retraumatization:

    1. **Training and Sensitization:**
    Ensure that all investigators and personnel involved in the investigation receive proper training in trauma-informed approaches. This training should emphasize understanding the effects of trauma and how to approach survivors with empathy and sensitivity.

    2. **Empathetic Initial Contact:**
    When survivors first report an assault, provide a safe, private, and non-threatening environment for them to share their experiences. Offer emotional support, validate their feelings, and assure them that they are not alone.

    3. **Believe the Survivor:**
    Start by believing the survivor’s account, as false reporting of sexual assault is relatively rare. Assure the survivor that you take their report seriously.

    4. **Consent and Confidentiality:**
    Clearly explain the limits of confidentiality and the necessity to share information with other professionals, like prosecutors and medical personnel. Ensure that the survivor gives informed consent for any actions taken during the investigation.

    5. **Choice and Control:**
    Respect the survivor’s choices throughout the investigation process. Give them control over decisions, such as when and where interviews take place, and what evidence is collected.

    6. **Interagency Collaboration:**
    Collaborate with other agencies and organizations, such as sexual assault crisis centers, to provide support and resources for survivors. Ensure that medical exams and counseling services are readily available.

    7. **Minimize Repeated Interviews:**
    Minimize the number of times survivors need to recount their experiences. Use a single, well-trained interviewer to reduce the risk of retraumatization.

    8. **Forensic Evidence Collection:**
    Collect forensic evidence in a non-invasive and respectful manner. Explain the procedures thoroughly, and obtain informed consent before conducting any exams. Encourage the survivor to participate in the evidence collection process.

    9. **Trauma-Informed Questioning:**
    When interviewing the survivor and any potential witnesses, use open-ended and non-leading questions. Allow the survivor to share their story at their own pace, and avoid any judgmental or confrontational language.

    10. **Sensitivity to Triggers:**
    Be aware of potential triggers and try to avoid them during interviews. For example, avoid graphic descriptions of sexual acts unless absolutely necessary for the investigation.

    11. **Cultural Competence:**
    Be sensitive to the cultural background and identity of the survivor. Understand how cultural factors may influence their experience and willingness to report.

    12. **Documentation and Preservation:**
    Thoroughly document all actions taken during the investigation, and preserve all evidence in accordance with established protocols.

    13. **Regular Updates:**
    Keep the survivor informed about the status of the investigation, ensuring they are aware of any legal proceedings or case developments.

    14. **Closure and Follow-Up:**
    Offer resources for ongoing counseling and support after the investigation concludes, and ensure the survivor is aware of the progress and outcome of the case.

    15. **Feedback and Evaluation:**
    Continuously evaluate and improve the trauma-informed approach within your organization. Seek feedback from survivors and advocates to make necessary adjustments.

    Remember that a trauma-informed approach is not just about the investigation process but also about creating a supportive and respectful environment for survivors throughout the legal and medical processes. It can help survivors feel heard, understood, and empowered as they seek justice and healing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Get Our Newsletters
Campus Safety HQ