What If We Treated Sex Assaults Like Muggings?

Photo: A message on sexual assault awareness prevention appears on the back of a T-shirt worn by a participant in the 5K Run/Walk during Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month at Kandahar Airfield in Kandahar province, Afghanistan, April 1, 2013. The goal of Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention is to raise public awareness about sexual violence and to educate communities and individuals on how to prevent sexual violence. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Ashley Bell.

An important message is written on a T-shirt during a Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month event at Kandahar Airfield in Kandahar province, Afghanistan, April 1, 2013. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Ashley Bell

By Katie Lange
DoD News, Defense Media Activity 

I was recently told by a military criminal investigator that the best way to prevent sex assaults is by focusing on something critical – the first response. Which brings me to this blog’s headline: What if we treated muggings (or break-ins, or any other crime) like a sex assault?

Seriously. What if the first response from the person the mugging victim confided in was something like this: “Why were you in that alley by yourself?” or, “Why don’t you remember how many attackers there were?” or, “Maybe if you didn’t have such expensive-looking jewelry, they wouldn’t have come after you.”

People don’t usually say those things to a mugging victim. But those kinds of questions are often asked of sex assault victims, and all it really does, according to experts, is re-victimize them.

A two-week Special Victims Capability Course taught at the Army Military Police School is working to change that mentality. More than 1,700 Department of Defense special agents, lawyers and other personnel have taken it. Here are some of the most important things they’re learning.

Neuroscience is answering why victims struggle to remember

A lot of sex assault victims have trouble remembering the details of their attack, which can lead to their credibility being questioned in court. But, it turns out, the reason why is basic neuroscience.

Russell Strand, the creator of the Forensic Experimental Trauma Interview, teaches a sexual assault class of military and civilian DoD personnel at the annual Special Victims Capability Course at Fort Leonoard Wood, Missouri. DoD photo by Katie Lange

Russell Strand, the creator of the Forensic Experimental Trauma Interview, teaches a sexual assault class of military and civilian DoD personnel at the annual Special Victims Capability Course at Fort Leonoard Wood, Missouri. DoD photo by Katie Lange

“The prefrontal cortex – which holds the who, what, when, where, why and how – is gone during the [trauma] event, and it doesn’t reappear when investigators start asking questions,” said Russell Strand, the chief of the Behavioral Sciences Education and Training Division of the Army Military Police School.

Meaning everything that a person thinks they would do – fight back, scream, etc. – may not happen due to fear-driven tonic immobility or dissociation. Stress hormones like norepinephrine, dopamine and serotonin also affect reactions, behaviors and memory.

“They are what breaks down and takes away that prefrontal cortex,” Strand said.

Strand created the Forensic Experimental Trauma Interview after the 2009 Fort Hood shooting. The technique focuses on collecting sensory details from the brain’s amygdala that can help trigger blocked memories.

“[The amygdala] is the part of the brain that also remembers the smells, the sights, the sounds, the taste,” Strand said. “This part of the brain collects the kind of information that we’re now after.”

Instead of asking victims to piece together a timeline of the assault, FETI-trained investigators only ask two questions:

  • Help me understand what you’re able to remember.
  • Tell me more about that.

It appears to be working. Since FETI was implemented, statistics show:

  • The solve rate (finding and identifying a suspect) has increased to a high of 95 percent.
  • The effectiveness of the investigations has increased by more than half.
  • According to the Office of the Judge Advocate General, since 2009, the Army has seen a more than 100 percent increase in the proportion of sex assault cases that result in prosecutions and convictions.

FETI is also helping in courtrooms to prove the question of consent by showing if a sex assault victim was fearful or incapacitated at the time of the event in question.

Focus less on victim behavior, more on the attacker 

U.S. Army Chief Catalina Mosqueda listens intently during the Special Victims Capability Course, which she also manages. DoD photo by Katie Lange

U.S. Army Chief Catalina Mosqueda listens intently during the Special Victims Capability Course, which she also manages. DoD photo by Katie Lange

Attackers don’t usually have the memory problems that victims do. Strand said they are often manipulative and believable; they can seem credible in interviews because they often make more sense than victims. So investigators are being taught to dig deeper into the reported attacker’s background.

Army CID Supervisory Special Agent Lori Heitman, who helps teach the SVC course, said attackers who have only offended once are an anomaly. She cited one of her high-profile cases, Army Staff Sgt. Angel Sanchez, a former drill sergeant, as an example.

“I got the first interview with the victim. Five more victims came out of that interview, and I just went looking for more. I pulled all of his Noncommissioned Officer Evaluation Reports. I looked back into his previous commands. I talked to his peers, his subordinates,” Heitman said. “I just found more and more victims.”

Put biases aside, learn common victim behavior

Why didn’t you scream or tell right away? Why did you clean yourself up?

“[The reasons why] are normal when you understand trauma,” Strand said. “When [investigators] connect and understand, there’s far less victim blaming.”

This is why the initial response is so critical. Heitman said the first person a victim tells is the test as to whether he or she will continue talking.

“Whatever the response is by that person … if it’s negative, it ends it right there. The trust is gone,” said Heitman, who is trying to get the students she teaches to learn to respond positively and not judge. “You could be the difference between enabling an offender and stopping a predator.”

The DoD is being asked by Congress to incorporate more of this style of thought into its sex assault training, so expect to hear more about it in the coming years.

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