In sex crimes,
the victim interview is usually your main evidence and your
main source of evidence leads, more so than with any other
crime. At the same time, the sex crime victim's telling of
their stories is usually much more inhibited, guarded, and
vulnerable to distortion than for victims of other crimes.
Complicating the picture even more, no other crime victim
interview tends to make the interviewer feel more uncertain
about how best to proceed.
these challenges of sex crime interviews lead again and again
to loss of evidence, loss of cases, and, all too frequently,
to loss of the victim's willingness to continue with the process.
But they also mean that a little effort at improving these
interviews can quickly bring immense benefits to your sex
crimes prosecutions. In addition, improving sex crime interview
techniques can make the interview itself a source of healing,
relief, and justice for the victims, as they'll feel their
stories have been expertly listened to and chronicled.
list of Do's and Don'ts are addressed primarily to improving
law enforcement interviews, but should be useful to anyone
who interviews victims of sex crimes. Except for the first
two, these tips aren't meant to be carried out in any particular
order. Rather, they're meant to improve your overall approach,
and to be applied throughout the interview. (The victim in
these tips is at times referred to as 'she' for ease of language,
but with the understanding that males are victims of sex crimes,
1. DO - Give
the victim as much control as possible right from the start.
The core injury
of sex crimes is that the victims have been robbed of self
determination at the most intimate level of their being. So,
understandably, victims are generally hyper-vigilant around
any sign of losing control again, especially around matters
pertaining to the crime. They're particularly anxious about
the unknown havoc a criminal case might further unleash in
their lives. The more you can give the victim a sense of control
in the process right from the start, (and throughout the interview),
the more they'll be able to relax into openness and cooperation.
are such that you'll be scheduling the interview ahead of
time, as is usually the case, always ask if the victim will
feel comfortable and safe at the suggested meeting time and
place, including giving her the option to suggest alternatives.
Inform victims of their right to have an advocate and a support
person of their choosing present during the interview.
This latter advisement
is mandated by law in many states, including in California.
But mandated or not, giving these options at the outset is
invaluable for establishing victim trust. It sends the clear
message that you're aware of the difficulties of these interviews
for the victim, and that, first and foremost, you want to
give her some control over the environment of the interview.
Just as important,
carefully spell out your full name and a direct phone number
or email where you can be contacted. Include your work schedule
and how soon the victim can hear back from you, along with
a sincere statement that you want the victim to contact you
at any time with any concerns. Take the time to have her write
this information down in a place where she won't lose it.
Thank her for her willingness to help you with the case. The
stronger you build that bridge to you and the case, the more
likely the victim is to walk on it.
victim is a minor build this bridge just as carefully
with the parent or guardian. It's true you won't likely be
sharing investigative details with a parent, even though most
will be seeking it. So it's all the more important that you
include and defer to the parent in as many other ways as possible.
2. DON'T - start
your interview without again dedicating three or four minutes
solely to addressing the victim's needs and concerns.
Sex crimes victims
almost always arrive at the interview plagued with shame,
anxieties, misinformation, and with fears of being judged.
Even more significant, they usually come to these interviews
still very uncertain about whether or not they really want
to be going forward with the justice process.
This state of
mind is in stark contrast, for example, to a robbery victim
who is completely unconflicted about their outrage and can't
wait to get the story on the record. As long as these anxieties
and uncertainties of sex crimes victims remain unaddressed,
chances are they're going to be very hesitant and holding
So after introducing
yourself, put your agenda completely aside, and say something
like this, "In a few minutes I'm going to be asking you
a lot of questions about what happened, but first I want to
answer any questions you might have." Or, "... but
first I want make sure you're comfortable with the process."
Don't assume a
victim's unresponsiveness to your openings means they're ready
to talk about the crime. Continue with specific questions.
Ask about their general well being since the rape, their safety
concerns, the degree of support from family and friends, housing
security, and importantly, concerns and questions the victim
may have about reporting to police. Express your willingness
to answer questions at any time, to take a break, to deal
with safety issues that may come up, and your appreciation
for her help getting the bad guy off the street.
One common concern
which victims rarely voice to law enforcement is this - 'The
police must not believe me, or they would have arrested him
by now.' You can't afford to have your victim in that state
of suspicion. So don't wait for the victim to bring this up.
Do explain why there is often a delay in sex crimes arrests.
Don't rush your
opening remarks. Slow the pace way down now, and the rest
will likely flow.
The key thing
to keep in mind is that before opening up, most victims need
to be convinced that you understand the complex ruptures of
safety and social issues in their lives resulting from the
Just by asking
relevant, sympathetic questions you actively establish that
you are someone who does understand, someone who is concerned
for her safety, and is competent and knowledgeable enough
to remedy any problems. Only then should you ask if she's
ready to get started.
3. DO keep your
eyes on the prize.
At some point
or points in a sex crime victim interview, you may feel that
the victim did some things that you truly believe are stupid,
ineffective, provocative, morally offensive, wrong, risky,
unfair, cowardly or dishonest. And, in all likelihood, most
sex crime victims have gotten into the situation and handled
it very differently than you would have.
yourself that you're a cop and the victim is probably not.
In fact, most of the victims will be young females with totally
different responses than a trained police officer. Second,
remember that no matter how much sexual assault training any
of us may have, we all still come from a world in which sexual
violence is shrouded in deeply rooted myths and reactions.
These myths and reactions aren't undone simply by knowing
the facts. Finding fault with the victims is one of those
reactions that often unconsciously comes to the fore no matter
how much training we have.
One way to keep
those reactions from surfacing and obstructing your interview
is to keep your focus on the goal of getting a dangerous suspect
off the streets. The victim in front of you, no matter what
you feel about their behavior, is your best bet for accomplishing
that goal. Staying focussed on partnering with the victim
to gather evidence helps make any judgements you may have
about the victim fade into insignificance. And keeping those
judgements completely out of your demeanor is key to getting
the victim's unguarded cooperation.
4. DON'T trample
The old medical
maxim of 'first, do no harm' is paramount in sex crimes interviews.
Your main evidence, the victim's willingness to openly tell
the story, is as fragile as lifting a footprint from the sand.
The last thing you want to do is step on it.
tell us vital aspects of their story that they then completely
omit during the law enforcement interview. This withholding
can be a victim's reaction to a complex mix of an interviewer's
subliminal gestures, mis-phrased questions, failure to note
a victim's mounting discomfort, or it just plain fear on the
victim's part of what will be unleashed by divulging a sensitive
circumstance. Providing just enough encouragement and information
without getting in the way is a balance that comes with experience.
But a good start
to preventing this common source of evidence loss is to keep
in mind that there are usually dozens of junctures during
the interview where the victim is consciously or unconsciously
deciding whether or not to mention or expand on aspects of
the story. The more you consciously begin watching and listening
for those moments in your interviews, the more you'll become
aware of them. It's at those moments when you need to stop,
slow down, encourage, explain, or reassure. Because a victim's
decision at each of these junctures can make or break your
Remember, a sex
crime story weaves through a lot of territory most normal
people wouldn't think of discussing with their most trusted
friends under the safest of conditions. Your tone, words,
and keen observation are what determine whether you shut this
fragile process down, or create openings to full disclosure.
5. DO anticipate
and counteract the victim's own misperceptions.
A sex crime victim's
view of their own experience is also shrouded in the same
myths and misperceptions as the rest of society, only now
with more intensity than ever. Victims frequently are self-judging
their behavior with the accumulated weight of overt and subliminal
victim blaming they've heard over a lifetime. So you often
have to actively counteract these myths to help the victim
You don't compromise
anything by introducing difficult questions with, "I
want you to know that it doesn't matter to me at all what
you were doing (drinking, wearing). The thing is that in order
to catch a bad guy, I have to have the exact truthful details
from you, so nobody can attack your story." Or, "Even
if you were doing something that's illegal, it doesn't matter
to me because we will ignore the minor crime in order to get
at the more serious crime of what happened to you."
Sometimes it helps
immensely to explain some of the nuts and bolts issues of
prosecuting sex crimes, such as the heightened importance
of victim credibility in these cases. Explaining these issues
not only keeps victims from misinterpreting why you're asking
certain sensitive questions, it also helps them feel more
a partner in the process, and enhances cooperation that way,
6. DON'T make
your line of questioning so rigid you lose key details.
Sex crimes victims
usually don't offer information unless they're asked. A straight
timeline train of questioning, of 'and then what happened',
might be sufficient for an auto theft case or a bar fight,
but will very often miss the behavioral evidence that can
be so important in sex crimes.
most victims are naive as to what constitutes evidence, especially
in regard to the subtle nature of evidence in a sex crimes
case. What a victim may consider just strange occurrences,
and not worth mentioning, can be strongly indicative of the
suspect's intent, or guilt, or covering up. And often these
can be events that occurred long before and long after the
time of the rape itself.
So, again, explaining
a little about the kinds of things that constitute evidence
can bring the victim in to more actively sifting through the
experience for the details you need. And so too can asking
more open ended questions like, "Looking back, can you
think of anything unusual the suspect did to work you into
an isolated situation?" "Anything different or unusual
you did after the rape to protect yourself?" "Anything
unusual the suspect has said or done since the rape to cover
for the rape?" "Any other people who may have seen
any of this? " Etc.
7. DO draw out
the elements of fear.
A victim tells
you that the suspect yelled at her to take off her blouse
and that she did as he said. Yet, there was no weapon and
no direct threats. To a defense attorney that spells consent.
A police officer, too, might look at it as ultimately consent
even though she had earlier multiple times told the man "no".
Even the victim may have her doubts as to whether this disqualifies
the event as rape.
First, keep in
mind that complying with an attacker is often the smart thing
to do. And then consider that the point at which a victim,
especially a young female victim, begins to comply with an
attacker's demands is often very different from the point
at which a police officer, or a man, would begin to comply.
From there, it's
important to draw out from the victim what she thought might
happen if she didn't comply with the suspect's command. In
this case, the suspect had tricked her into an isolated strange
place at 3 am with no transport, phone, or money. Nor did
she speak English. "He was getting angrier and angrier,"
she says, "He was stronger than me. He was going to get
what he wanted one way or the other and I didn't want to get
beaten up." Isn't that the same reason you might 'willingly'
decide to turn your wallet over to a mugger? But still you
were robbed, right?
But first you
have to ask. "What did you think might happen if you
didn't comply? If you just walked out the door? If you screamed?"
This key information about what the victim feared might happen,
and why, can stop a defense attorney in their tracks. But
it's information that can easily be missed if you don't probe
and ask directly.
8. DON'T interrogate!
There are often
contradictions in a victim's story, and many times there are
clear indications the victim flat out isn't telling the truth
about everything. A law enforcement officer's instinct in
these instances is to jump on these contradictions. No question
you need to unravel and get to the truth. But few things are
more likely to shut a victim down than to get even a hint
of being judged. Being subjected to an interrogation mode,
however briefly, is more than most sex crimes victims can
First, it's important
to understand that the number one reason sex crimes victims
may lie, distort, or withhold information is because they're
afraid of not being believed. Like anyone raised on this planet,
they've heard a lifetime of rape victim-blaming in all its
million and one forms. Now that they've been assaulted, themselves,
they're doing whatever it takes to shield themselves from
a similar fate.
Of course, you
know it's not likely she was behind the bar with this guy
studying for a history test! But if you jump on it and interrogate,
you risk your case.
cause of contradictions in victims' stories are the mind shattering
effects of trauma, especially around time frames. Trauma fragments
thoughts and their expression, which can easily lead to contradictions
in the telling. Attempts to interrogate will greatly exacerbate
the problem. Calm, gentle questioning will often clear it
Whatever the underlying
cause of seeming contradictions, remember, your goal is to
nail the rapist, which means you need to unravel the story
in a way that will maintain the victim's trust.
True, there is
such a thing as a completely false and malicious rape report,
but it's rare. And it's usually pretty obvious and easy to
ferret out. Interrogating doesn't really help here either.
partner with the victim.
Few things will
be more productive than actively signaling, in as many ways
as possible, that you are in a partnership with the victim
rather than in a one sided, authoritarian role. For two important
One, due to the
more open ended nature of these interviews, though you are
the one asking the questions, it's the victim who is doing
the sifting through her experience and through the suspect
behavior to bring out potentially significant details. The
more you can approach the interview as you guiding the victim
in a search for the evidence, the more the victim is likely
to identify what's most significant, and reduce the all to
common occurrence of omitting key details.
And second, partnering
rather than patronizing or officiating greatly enhances the
victim's dignity by shifting victims from the passive helplessness
of being a victim to being an active participant in pursuit
So tell the victim
directly you need her help in thinking over the experience
for things that might be evidence, and actively explain the
kinds of things that constitute evidence. What is amazing
is how many victims, including child victims, catch on to
what this means, and then come up with things you never thought
10. DON'T end
the interview without resetting the stage for the next step.
Few things make
a a sex crimes victim more unnecessarily anxious, fearful,
and leery of the process than not being informed of what's
happening and what's going to happen next. Understandably,
one of the all too common ways victims deal with this kind
of anxiety is by simply withdrawing from case.
Despite the cardinal
importance of keeping the victims informed and connected,
most sex crimes victims, when they first call us, cannot answer
the most basic questions about the status of their cases;
where is the case in the process? Who's the detective? What
are the charges under investigation? Has the case gone to
the DA's office? Have the witnesses all been interviewed?
This is not the
victim's fault! This is the detective's fault. It may even
be that you've given the victim the information. But traumatized
victims don't always hear what you're saying. So, you have
to pay attention to whether the information you're giving
is being retained. The best way to do this is to have the
victim write things down, and even then, repeatedly remind
her that she should call you with any questions.
11. DO - Protect
the victim! Protect your case!
crimes victims you want to know immediately regarding any
attempts by the suspect or friends to harass her or dissuade
her from pursuing the case.
Since most sex
crime suspects know the victims, and share a social circle
with the victim, they will almost always attempt to harass,
vilify, attempt to dissuade the victim, and organize others
to do the same. All too often the perpetrators are more persistent
about controlling the case than the detectives.
So protect your
victim and protect your case! Your bridge to the victim has
to be stronger than the suspect's attempt to break it. Inform
the victim that it's common for sex crimes perpetrators to
begin harassing or retaliating. Explain that any attempt to
dissuade her from the case is a new crime, even if it's just
verbal. Tell her you want to know immediately if she's having
Then do whatever
needs to be done to stop this perpetrator behavior in its
tracks. Including immediately opening a new criminal case
or arresting the suspect for attempting to dissuade a witness.
And even if the
behavior doesn't reach the criminal level, step in and use
your authority to stop the hostile social dynamics that so
routinely flare up against sex crimes victims. These dynamics
are another very common cause of victims withdrawing from
So pick up the
phone and call the school, friends, workplace, family, or
wherever the trouble is brewing, and say you want it to stop
so that your investigation can proceed. Protect the victim,
and you protect your case!
12. DO amply
prepare the victim ahead of time for the pretext call.
Nowhere is it
more important to partner with the victim than in the pretext
call. After all, in a pretext call it's the victim who is
taking the investigatory lead. And it's the victim who has
to think on her feet. Given that pretext calls are often your
best opportunity to get slam-dunk evidence in sex crimes cases,
it's a huge mistake not to get the victim thinking about these
calls and their possible scenarios ahead of time.
victims know the suspects well. By informing the victim about
the nature of these calls, and engaging the victim's thinking
before setting up the call, the victim will be mulling over
likely suspect responses in her head in the lead up time,
and figuring out effective counter responses as to how to
best get the suspect to talk about the crime.
missed opportunity in pretext calls is having the victim (and
you) think about who else might be even better situated to
trick the suspect into an admission. Talking with the victim
about the pretext call at the end of the interview, brings
a well prepared victim on the day of the call, and greatly
enhances the chance of success.