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Question: Enhancing Sexual Assault Investigations through Trauma-Informed Practices

10 Jul 2024,1:43 AM

For this Project, you are to assume the role as Commander of the Criminal Investigations Division (CID) of a large police department. Recently, you were approached by another department’s Chief (located in Maryland) that has received criticism for its handling of several sexual assault investigations. Complaints from survivors, and advocates sitting in on law enforcement interviews, included insensitive treatment during interviews, victim-blaming questions, issues with language used in reporting documentation (i.e. had sexual intercourse v. nonconsensual sexual assault) lack of consistent follow-up and communication, and failure to provide information about supportive services during and beyond the investigation.

You have been approached because your department underwent significant changes and updated Standard Operating Procedures to ensure investigative approaches are consistent with trauma-informed practices. From this, community assessments of survivors’ experiences have shown increased trust in the reporting process, improved community-police relationships, and an overall increase in reports of sexual assault.

For this Project, you have been asked to provide a department training and procedures guide for the Chief of the partner department that includes recommendations on investigations techniques and treatment of sexual assault survivors.

Required Research & Analysis:

Provide a brief background on the crime of sexual assault, including prevalence rates, vulnerable populations, and barriers to reporting.
Offer analysis regarding how historical rape laws and current rape myths have influenced investigative approaches.
Suggest what topical education should be required for officers and detectives interacting with victims reporting sexual assault and explain why?
Address what training is required for detectives in order to insure interviews with victims are consistent with trauma-informed techniques?
What considerations should departments make regarding timelines of initial victim interviews and follow-up interviews given our current understanding of trauma exposure and memory recall?
How is trauma memory recall different from our traditional understanding of considerations when assessing reliable memory?
How has the FETI interview approach been shown to combat the consequences of trauma and why does this approach provide more reliable and valid data?
How should law enforcement expect survivors of sexual assault to act during interviews?
What considerations should be made when documenting reports of sexual assault?
What information, notice, and support should be provided to all victims under Maryland victims’ rights laws? Are there any special requirements for victims of sexual assault?
What do Maryland law guidelines suggest in terms of victim treatment by law enforcement?
How do positive victim experiences with law enforcement impact overall reporting rates, crime data, and ultimately the resources dedicated to policing and solvability of sexual assault cases?





Enhancing Sexual Assault Investigations Through Trauma-Informed Practices


Sexual assault remains one of the most underreported and complex crimes, with significant implications for victims and the broader community. The prevalence of sexual assault, combined with the historical and societal challenges surrounding its investigation, necessitates a nuanced and informed approach by law enforcement. This guide aims to provide comprehensive recommendations on investigative techniques and the treatment of sexual assault survivors. These recommendations are informed by trauma-informed practices that have demonstrated success in improving community-police relationships and increasing reporting rates. By addressing educational requirements for officers, trauma-informed interview techniques, and best practices for victim support, this guide will aid in the development of a more empathetic and effective response to sexual assault cases.

Background on Sexual Assault

Prevalence Rates and Vulnerable Populations

Sexual assault is alarmingly prevalent, with studies indicating that approximately one in five women and one in 71 men in the United States have experienced an attempted or completed rape at some point in their lives (Smith et al., 2018). Vulnerable populations, including women, children, LGBTQ+ individuals, and people with disabilities, are disproportionately affected. These groups often face additional barriers to reporting due to fear of stigmatization, discrimination, and mistrust of authorities.

Barriers to Reporting

Several factors contribute to the underreporting of sexual assault. Victims often fear retribution, social stigma, or disbelief from law enforcement and their communities. Historical attitudes towards rape, characterized by victim-blaming and skepticism, exacerbate these fears. Additionally, victims may be unaware of their legal rights or the supportive services available to them, further deterring them from coming forward.

Historical Influence on Investigative Approaches

Historical Rape Laws

Historically, rape laws were based on patriarchal notions that prioritized the protection of male property rights over the autonomy of women. These laws required victims to demonstrate physical resistance and provide corroborative evidence, which placed an undue burden on the victim and often resulted in the dismissal of legitimate claims. Such laws have evolved, but their legacy continues to influence contemporary investigative practices.

Rape Myths and Their Impact

Rape myths, such as the belief that victims provoke assault through their behavior or attire, persist in society and can unconsciously influence law enforcement attitudes. These myths contribute to biased questioning and skepticism towards victims' accounts, undermining the investigative process and retraumatizing survivors. Understanding and challenging these myths is crucial for developing a more empathetic and effective approach to sexual assault investigations.

Education for Officers and Detectives

Required Topical Education

Officers and detectives must receive comprehensive education on the dynamics of sexual assault, including its psychological, physical, and social impacts. Training should cover the prevalence of sexual assault, the effects of trauma on memory and behavior, and the importance of a victim-centered approach. Education on the intersectionality of sexual violence and how it disproportionately affects marginalized communities is also essential.

Importance of Education

This education is vital for several reasons. First, it equips officers with the knowledge to conduct sensitive and informed interviews. Second, it helps dismantle harmful stereotypes and biases that can impede investigations. Finally, it fosters a culture of empathy and support within the department, encouraging victims to come forward and trust the investigative process.

Trauma-Informed Interview Techniques

Training for Trauma-Informed Techniques

Detectives must be trained in trauma-informed interviewing techniques, which prioritize the victim's emotional and psychological well-being. This approach acknowledges the impact of trauma on memory and behavior and aims to minimize retraumatization during the investigative process. Key components of this training include active listening, providing a safe and supportive environment, and avoiding judgmental or accusatory language.

Timeline Considerations for Interviews

Understanding trauma exposure and memory recall is crucial when scheduling initial and follow-up interviews. Research indicates that trauma can disrupt memory consolidation, making it challenging for victims to recall details immediately after the assault (Brewin et al., 2017). Allowing time for memory to stabilize and providing multiple opportunities for the victim to share their account can result in more accurate and comprehensive information.

Trauma Memory Recall

Traditional approaches to assessing reliable memory often fail to account for the complexities of trauma memory recall. Trauma can fragment and distort memories, causing victims to remember events non-linearly or with gaps (van der Kolk, 2014). Recognizing these differences is essential for conducting effective and empathetic interviews.

The FETI Approach

The Forensic Experiential Trauma Interview (FETI) approach has been shown to combat the consequences of trauma by focusing on the victim's sensory and emotional experiences rather than a chronological account. This method reduces the pressure on victims to provide a coherent narrative, leading to more reliable and valid information (Smith & Pino, 2020). The FETI approach enhances the accuracy of the investigation and supports the victim's emotional recovery.

Victim Behavior During Interviews

Expectations of Victim Behavior

Survivors of sexual assault may exhibit a wide range of behaviors during interviews, including confusion, emotional numbness, or heightened anxiety. Law enforcement should be prepared for these reactions and avoid interpreting them as indicators of deceit or inconsistency. Recognizing that these behaviors are typical responses to trauma is essential for conducting empathetic and effective interviews.

Considerations for Documenting Reports

When documenting reports of sexual assault, it is critical to use language that accurately reflects the non-consensual nature of the act. Terms like "had sexual intercourse" should be replaced with "non-consensual sexual assault" to avoid minimizing the severity of the crime. Detailed, objective, and factual documentation is essential for maintaining the integrity of the investigation and supporting the victim's case in court.

Victims' Rights and Support in Maryland

Information and Support Under Maryland Law

Maryland victims' rights laws mandate that victims receive information about their rights, the status of the investigation, and available supportive services. Special considerations for victims of sexual assault include providing timely and sensitive medical examinations, access to counseling, and legal assistance (Maryland State's Attorney's Office, 2020). Ensuring that victims are informed and supported throughout the investigative process is crucial for their recovery and cooperation.

Guidelines for Victim Treatment

Maryland law emphasizes the respectful and compassionate treatment of victims by law enforcement. Officers are required to avoid victim-blaming language, provide updates on the investigation's progress, and connect victims with appropriate services. Adhering to these guidelines helps build trust between law enforcement and the community, encouraging more victims to report assaults and participate in the investigative process.

Impact of Positive Victim Experiences

Reporting Rates and Crime Data

Positive experiences with law enforcement can significantly impact reporting rates and crime data. When victims feel believed, supported, and respected, they are more likely to report assaults and cooperate with investigations. This increase in reporting enhances the accuracy of crime data, providing a clearer picture of the prevalence and nature of sexual assault in the community.

Resource Allocation and Solvability

Improved reporting rates and accurate crime data can lead to better resource allocation for policing sexual assault cases. When law enforcement agencies demonstrate their commitment to addressing sexual violence, they are more likely to receive the necessary funding and support to enhance their investigative capabilities. Ultimately, this leads to higher solvability rates and a greater ability to bring perpetrators to justice.


Addressing sexual assault requires a comprehensive and empathetic approach by law enforcement. By understanding the prevalence and impact of sexual assault, challenging historical biases and myths, and implementing trauma-informed practices, departments can improve their investigative processes and support victims more effectively. Education and training for officers and detectives are crucial in fostering a culture of empathy and respect, while adherence to victims' rights laws ensures that survivors receive the support they need. Positive interactions with law enforcement can lead to increased reporting rates, more accurate crime data, and improved resource allocation, ultimately enhancing the solvability of sexual assault cases. By adopting these recommendations, law enforcement agencies can build trust with their communities and create a safer environment for all.


  • Brewin, C. R., Gregory, J. D., Lipton, M., & Burgess, N. (2017). Intrusive memories in PTSD: characteristics, neural mechanisms, and treatment implications. Behavioral Sciences & the Law, 35(5-6), 419-429.
  • Maryland State's Attorney's Office. (2020). Maryland Victims' Rights Laws. Retrieved from
  • Smith, S. G., Zhang, X., Basile, K. C., Merrick, M. T., Wang, J., Kresnow, M., & Chen, J. (2018). The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: 2015 Data Brief – Updated Release. National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • Smith, S. J., & Pino, N. W. (2020). Trauma-Informed Policing: Toward a More Just and Effective Response to Victims. Springer Nature.
  • van der Kolk, B. A. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Viking.

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