Police Officer Training: Sensitivity Issues in Police Interviews
Sensitivity to victims is important in police interviews, especially with victims of rape, domestic violence, and sexual predation. Advice, lecturing, and blame can shut down an interview, hampering an investigation. Sensitivity creates trust and encourages victims to share information and cooperate with law enforcement.
Sensitivity to victims is important in police interviews. But building trust with a frightened and confused victim is not always easy. Common-sense questions (“Why did you trust a man you’d just met?”) and friendly advice (“Next time you go to a bar, keep an eye on your drink”) can feel like shaming, causing the victim to shut down during the interview. Officers should strive to build trust so that victims will feel confident about sharing information needed for the investigation.
Crimes whose victims are especially vulnerable to shaming include rape, domestic violence, and sexual predation.
Some guidelines for talking to rape victims are obvious: don’t tell her that she “asked for it,” and never repeat the cruel joke that she should have “laid back and enjoyed it.” But some forms of shaming are more subtle. Commenting on the choices she made before the crime (such as heavy drinking or getting into a car a few minutes after meeting someone at a bar) accomplishes nothing useful and destroys the trust you’re trying to build.
Criminal justice experts suggest that you reframe the victim’s behavior by asking yourself how you would feel if the victim had been robbed. Would drinking, drug use, or bad judgment justify taking her money? The answer is an obvious no—and the same principle applies to sexual assault.
Officers should also remember that rape is a crime of power, not sex. Be careful to avoid suggesting that she invited the rape by wearing attractive clothing, indulging in spicy conversation, or dancing provocatively.
Many people—including some police officers—harbor skepticism about domestic violence accusations. Why, they ask, would a woman continue to live with a man who was mistreating her? They conclude the abuse was her fault, not his.
But advocates for victims emphasize the importance of understanding how intimidating it is to be threatened by a man who is larger, stronger, and more aggressive than you are. Other factors include the control that domestic abusers often exercise over their victims—isolating them from friends and family, limiting their movements, and denying them access to money. A woman with no place to go and no way to support herself may stay with an abusive man for her entire life as a matter of mere survival.
In addition, family members and religious leaders may pressure her to stay, there may be children or a beloved pet to protect, and the victim may be the sole caregiver for a family member who lives in the household.
Most seriously, many victims die when they try to leave the abusive partner. Not surprisingly, many victims decide that it’s safer to stay even though that means enduring more abuse.
The officer’s role in these situations is to listen attentively, record the facts, support the victim, and direct her to community resources that can keep her safe. Blame and accusatory questions (“How many years did you let him get away with that behavior?”) are never appropriate.
Adolescents often think they are in love with the predators who lure them away from family and friends for sex. Not surprisingly, officers interviewing these victims sometimes work hard to try to dispel their romantic fog. Unfortunately this well-intentioned effort may cause the young victim to feel judged, ashamed, and reluctant to reveal about what happened.
Criminal justice experts emphasize that there is never any genuine consent in these relationships. The young victims are selected for their neediness and easy compliance, especially with a predator who knew how to press the right emotional buttons. Often subtle threats are woven into the predators’ love patter. Most seriously, victims may be have been told not to trust police.
During interviews, officers should listen patiently, avoid lecturing, and offer support to the young person who is trying to grapple with what has happened.
The most important guidelines for dealing with all three categories of victims are listening, support, and a nonjudgmental attitude. A well-conducted interview can be the first step in healing for the victim—and can help ensure a successful investigation and prosecution.