How Trauma-Informed Campus Policing Can Make Investigations More Effective

Trauma-informed investigations of sexual assaults and other violent crimes enables investigators to convict more perpetrators.
Published: April 18, 2022

Do we have the courage to rethink our approach to sexual assault investigations by adopting trauma-informed policing strategies?

Every 107 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted, and our colleges and universities are not immune. Among undergraduates, more than one in four females and nearly 7% of males will become victims of rape or sexual assault. Of those victims, only 20% will ever report the crime to law enforcement. Nationally, for every 1,000 rapes committed, only six perpetrators will see jail time.

With these troubling statistics in mind, we need to ask if the investigations are more traumatic than the assaults. In a “traditional investigation,” the victim will relive her assault time after time as she first tells her story to the first responding officer, then to the EMS, then at the hospital (maybe multiple times), then to the investigator, then to the prosecutor, then she gets to relive it all again in open court.

What is our response when we see that her story changes from version to version? What if there is a new detail that never came out before? Do we begin to doubt her story, or do we begin to recognize that victims of sexual assault often present differently than other victims?

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How often have you seen a rape or sexual assault victim make an initial report and then never return for the follow up interview? Have you witnessed a victim change their mind mid-way through the initial report? What causes this, and why do 80% of victims never report the crime to law enforcement?

Trauma-Informed Policing Adopts the Victim-Centered Approach

Trauma-informed campus policing challenges many of our basic concepts of sexual assault investigations. It involves everyone from the first patrol officer on scene to the prosecuting official in the court room and how each performs their job. Trauma-informed policing is a much more victim-centered approach to violent crime investigations. While we concentrate on rape and sexual assault in this article, elements of trauma-informed policing can be applied to many other violent crimes.

If we want to address the statistics, perhaps we should start by rethinking what we think we know about trauma victims by reviewing our investigatory processes to minimize the additional trauma we could be causing.

For example, everyone knows that if the victim changes her story or changes the order of events, she must be lying, right? Not necessarily. Our brains do a wonderful job of protecting us. The brain may not be able to process all the information at once, right after an assault. The story often changes a little here and there, and more detail comes over time.

Additionally, we have all heard “Investigator Rule No. 1:” if the victim looks down or away when speaking, she is definitely lying. The truth is that trauma victims are embarrassed and humiliated. It is hard for a victim to look someone in the eyes when they are talking about a violation of the most intimate and personal aspects of their being.

How the Body and Brain React to Trauma

Did you know that trauma victims are often able to recall more about smell, textures, and sounds than the order of events? The brain clearly recalls colognes, the smell of cigarettes, leather seats, and concrete. Trauma-informed investigators use these sensory clues to help piece together a complete picture.

How many times does the victim have to tell the same humiliating story, including all the specific details about how her body, mind, and soul were violated? Is once enough? Five times? Ten times? In a perfect world, one time is too many. We all know that the victim is going to need to relive the experience several times. We, as trained investigators, need the information, but we also need to realize that every time she tells the story, she relives the story and is violated once again.

We need to recognize how the body responds to traumatic events and how those responses manifest in victims. Without this understanding, you may mis-read the signs and symptoms of trauma that your victim is displaying. Trauma affects each part of the brain and could be the reason why your victim did or did not react in certain ways.

Investigators need not be experts in brain function, but a few basic concepts on brain functions are useful. A common question to a victim is, “Did you scream or cry for help?” The Broca area of the brain is to blame for shutting down the body’s physical ability to speak or scream for help during a traumatic event.

Another part of the brain, the hippocampus, stores memories. When traumatized, the hippocampus can jumble the memories. The memories often come back in the form of flashbacks. Flashbacks can come within hours or days of the traumatic event, or in some cases decades later.

Other Myths About Sexual Assault We Must Un-Learn

Let us not forget about all the other myths about sexual assault: her dress was too short, she led him on, she changed her mind afterwards. If we say them often enough, the victims begin to believe them as well.

We have all heard the phrase, “When are you going to get over it and move on?” This is perhaps the cruelest of all of the shaming comments. Law enforcement officers often are not confronted with the ramifications of trauma from a distant past. However, officers do need to realize that trauma does not just go away.

Imagine a scenario where a young college freshman moves away from home to school. What you don’t know is that this young freshman has been subjected to incest for years. Now that she is away from the perpetrator, she can reach out for help.

Remember all the questions you may want to ask: “Why didn’t you report before? Why didn’t you fight back? Why are you just now reporting?” Please remember that when you are judging this young girl, she had to make decisions as a child and from a child’s point of view. From your perspective, the decision may be completely wrong, but when you are judging, please remember you are judging a child.

There are many myths and misconceptions surrounding the crimes of rape and sexual assault.

It’s Time to Rethink Our Investigations

It is time to rethink the way we investigate violent crimes and methods that we employ to interview the victims of those crimes. A trauma-informed approach, from start to finish, will gain us the trust of our victims and result in more convictions.

Sherrie Allsup is a survivor of long-term sexual abuse, trauma, and suicide attempt. She tells her story of abuse and survival and helps officers recognize how victims react and respond to the investigatory process.  She also offers tips and ideas of how to overcome these issues. Chief Wiley Gammon is a 30-year veteran police officer and chief of police at Atlanta Metropolitan State College with over 150 hours of concentrated training in sexual assault and trauma investigations.

Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series