UMD Police Captain Writes on Sexual Assault

Recently several articles have appeared in the Statesman regarding sexual assault, and thankfully the articles have spawned public dialogue on the topic. Much of the ensuing discussion has centered on the law enforcement response to these crimes. When asked for my input and about UMDPD’s direction, I reply that we are moving to a victim-centered approach. This approach is by no means new. It began gaining acceptance in the Duluth area among law enforcement agencies as Mending the Sacred Hoop was completing its Safety and Accountability Audit regarding Native American Women sexual assault victims late in 2007 into early 2008. The pragmatic leadership of then Duluth Police Department Deputy Chief John Beyer saw this as an opportunity to improve relations with and service to not only the Native American community, but to victims of sexual assault in general.

As the newly promoted Major Crimes Bureau Commander, I was honored to be his selection to help implement the changes recommended by the safety audit. Those changes involved moving from what many law enforcement academics call the “medical model” of law enforcement service delivery. This can be characterized by the “just the facts” approach reminiscent of “Dragnet” and  “1Adam12”. In its essence, there was nothing “wrong” with this approach, as this is how peace officers have been trained to perform their duties for two or three generations now. It is quite scientific (theoretically) in its method and therefore probative. It does however, fall quite short in compassion and focus on the victim’s well-being. The best way I can illustrate the point is through the following example taken from an NPR interview with David C. Barnett and retired Lakewood, Ohio Police Chief Dan Clark on April 29, 2010:

“Imagine this scenario: You were raped about an hour ago. The violence and the fear are all too fresh in your mind as you tell the story to a police officer. Minutes later you are in an emergency room describing the incident all over again to a doctor, who needs to know all the details so she can fill out your medical chart. A couple days later, you’re talking with someone from the prosecutor’s office. He has to build a case against the suspected perpetrator, so it’s important for you to tell the story once again.

If you think that sounds harrowing, you’d be right, says former Lakewood Police chief Dan Clark. He says even though they’re intended to help, such repeated interrogations can actually be harmful to sexual assault victims.

DAN CLARK: The more times a victim has to recount their story, the more difficult it is for them, because just recounting the story is additional trauma, and we want to minimize that kind of trauma.”

What a victim-centered approach offers investigators is the chance to be empathetic and empower the victim. At the very minimum this serves to start the healing process, if indeed one can fully heal from such an incident. Using a victim-centered approach in the above example, the victim will receive as best as possible a seamless investigation negating the need to keep re-hashing the traumatic sequence of events over and over. In other words, the victim will be interviewed instead of interrogated, the medical consult takes place with a specially trained Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner who understands the psychological as well as physical trauma, law enforcement first responders, investigators and prosecutors work collaboratively with input from the victim to minimize «re-victimization.»

Some of the difficult questions germane to a sexual assault investigation still need to be asked in order to objectively investigate the crime. For example, investigating officers will still need to ask if the victim were drinking, and if so, how much. Using a victim-centered approach, the question can be asked and explained in a compassionate manner. Instead of appearing on the surface as victim blaming or accusatory in nature, we explain the reason for asking the question. «Were you drinking?» becomes «I need to know how much you had to drink because if you were under the influence of the most common and available date-rape drug out there - alcohol - I don›t believe you were able to form willful consent.» Consent is the most popular defense strategy in an acquaintance rape scenario.

Working in strong partnership with the Vice Chancellor for Student Life, the Women›s Resource Center and Susana Pelayo-Woodward, Student Health Services, many others, and our good friends at the Program for Aid to Victims of Sexual Assault (PAVSA), UMDPD joins Duluth PD in becoming area models for law enforcement response to sexual assault protocols. Unfortunately limited space prevents me from writing more at length on the many complex nuances of sexual assault and sexual assault investigation. If you would like more information please go to the following websites for sexual assault protocols and services available:   You are always welcome to call, email, or stop and talk with me or any one of the UMDPD officers. We are all very approachable and eager to help in any way we can.

BY SCOTT DREWLO UMD police Captain

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