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Inspired by the recent wave of high-profile sexual assault allegations, New York Police Department officials are taking a second look at how they interview women and men who have stepped forward to report assaults. Law enforcement professionals at the NYPD are hoping that a new approach to interviewing sexual assault survivors could help re-open thousands of the City’s cold cases, the Wall Street Journal reports.
Dealing with survivors has been a notoriously difficult task for law enforcement for decades now. The problem came into stark relief, Axios notes, when a report from independent journalism network ProPublica uncovered the details of how one Washington State police department coerced a victim into recanting her report of rape. The 2015 investigation spurred a renewed debate within the law enforcement community, in which many experts argued that overly-aggressive questioning could intimidate assault survivors into silence.
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It’s also bad science, says Russell W. Strand, the former US Army Criminal Investigations Command special agent who developed Forensic Experiential Trauma Interview, or FETI, alongside special agent Lori D. Heitman. FETI is a new methodology that has law enforcement officials asking open-ended questions, rather than pressuring assault survivors to provide specific details.
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In traditional investigations, detectives push victims to remember details about their assault. Your average crime sheet features questions on the timeline of events that led to an assault, looks for details on the crime’s location and attempts to derive clues about the offender’s appearance.
Detectives have been interviewing NY sexual assault survivors along these lines for decades. In doing so, says Strand, law enforcement officers have been relying on brain processes that take place in a person’s pre-frontal cortex. That’s the part of the brain that records the who, what, where and when of an event, Strand notes.
The problem, however, is that it’s also the part of the brain that usually shuts off when someone undergoes a traumatic experience. “Trauma victims [and] witnesses do not generally experience trauma in the same way most of us experience a non-traumatic event,” Strand writes.
Under the stress of a traumatic event, the high-level cognitive processes that usually guide us through the world fade into the background. What’s left are the brain’s primitive centers, regions dedicated to keeping us alive in the face of a threat, like the brain stem.
These less-advanced areas of the brain are “closer” to the raw experience of an event, recording sensory information in an unfocused, rather than fact-oriented, way. And these memories aren’t always linear; they don’t tell a clear story from beginning to end, but can be fractured and impressionistic.
In fact, relying solely on information stored in the pre-frontal cortex can actually be counter-productive. When pressed for specific details of an assault, most survivors aren’t able to provide the facts, because their memories were formed during a period of extreme stress.
That’s one reason why a narrow-minded focus on the traditional concerns of criminal investigation (the who, what, where, when and why of an event) can do more harm than good. Trauma survivors can become increasingly frustrated by their inability to remember concrete details, which could lead them to shut down entirely.
More to the point, “most trauma victims […] are not only unable to accurately provide this type of information, but when asked to do so often inadvertently provide inaccurate information and details which frequently causes the fact-finder to become suspicious of the information provided.”
In short, the details provided by an assault survivor during an investigation often appear to be lies, but it’s only because detectives are looking in the wrong place for information. Sex crimes investigators are looking in the pre-frontal cortex for evidence, when they should be trying to unlock the brain’s primitive centers instead.
The FETI methodology teaches detectives to move away from centering their interviews on factual specifics. Instead of asking victims about particulars, like the color of the perpetrator’s shirt, law enforcement officers are trained to open conversation with questions that focus on a survivor’s experience of the assault.
In his foundational paper on the methodology, Russell Strand suggests an open-ended questioning style that puts the survivor’s sensory experience at the forefront of the interview and gently encourages them to expand on their impressions:
As we can see, FETI is about understanding the context in which an assault occurred, not just the details of the event itself.
Strand emphasizes sensory data in his work. FETI practitioners ask about an assault survivor’s sensory impressions, encompassing sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. Unlocking these “sensory cues,” Strand has found, is an effective way of uncovering associated “peripheral” details, ones that the interviewee has already deemed inconsequential, not worth mentioning.
Only after facilitating an extensive discussion of the victim’s experience are detectives told to clarify basic questions of factual details. “Trust is central,” writes Strand. “One of the greatest needs of anyone who has experienced or is experiencing high stress and/or trauma is the need to be safe.”
Law enforcement officers should take every opportunity to demonstrate a genuine empathy and understanding. The goal, beyond providing a measure of comfort to someone who has lived through a horrific violation, is to encourage assault survivors to allow another person “inside” their traumatic experience.
To encourage reporting and gather more-accurate evidence, detectives for the NYPD’s Special Victims Division, which specializes in investigating sex crimes, child abuse and hate crime, took a course in FETI in 2016.
“In FETI training,” says the NYPD’s Deputy Chief Michael Osgood, “the detectives are instructed to ask broad questions that tap into a victim’s primitive brain, which maintains sensory information of those events.” Osgood, who spoke to the Wall Street Journal, is a big believer in the method. “Channeling this part of the brain can result in a more substantial narrative.”
Eusebio Santos, a detective for the NYPD, has now interviewed around 30 assault survivors using FETI techniques. He’s already noticing results. When he sticks to traditional interview methods, Santos told reporters at the Wall Street Journal, the answers don’t really go anywhere. But when he opens the questioning up to include a victim’s experiences, they become more-confident narrators.