EDWARD F. MOORE
During my thirty-two years in law enforcement I've concluded that sexual assault investigations are among the most difficult yet important crimes a police officer will investigate in their career. These assaults are very personal in nature, leaving the victim physically and emotionally traumatized, and pose special considerations for an investigative strategy by officers tasked with solving the crime and bringing the responsible offender to justice.
Investigations into sexual assaults require a well coordinated response by law enforcement that commences immediately upon receipt of the call by communications personnel and the preliminary response and investigation by patrol officers to identify and preserve evidence. A coordinated follow-up investigation by police personnel assigned primary investigative responsibility for the case will rely on coordination with crime scene technicians, sexual assault forensic examiners (AKA SAFE Nurse) at the hospital, and close collaboration with victim support service personnel and the prosecutors office. In today's policing atmosphere, this is best accomplished through well thought out policies and procedures and interagency protocols coupled with multidisciplinary training at all levels of the involved agencies.
Communications personnel must be trained in collecting appropriate information at the onset, and be provided departmental guidelines at their fingertips for easy reference when the initial report is received. Their training should include an understanding of the emotional trauma the victim will likely be under and the wide variety of responses to expect from victims as communication staff gathers information about the assault. Well trained communications staff are better equipped to initiate a best practices approach during the first step to law enforcement's response and investigation. Being the first contact the victim will have in a chain of interaction with law enforcement, communications personnel can set the tone for the victim's emotional ability to cope in the unfamiliar and often intimidating road of the legal system.
Responding patrol officers must have a solid foundation through training and department guidelines in understanding the emotional stress a victim of sexual assault is under, displaying patience and understanding in their contacts with the victim. The first police officers at the incident scene must find balance between their interaction with the victim and their goal of obtaining necessary information about the assault and preserving the crime scene. Sexual assaults most always involve two separate crime scenes; the location where the assault occurred and the crime scene evidence on the victim, making the victim a separate crime scene. Officers must therefore not only cause the physical location of the assault to be secured for processing, but they must be trained to deal appropriately with the victim's emotions while working towards the goal of the sexual assault forensic examination by trained medical staff. Officers should always consider offering to call rape crisis or other appropriate victim support providers for the victim at the onset of the investigation. Victim service workers emotional support for the victim can be an asset in the investigation, assisting the victim in understanding why certain questions must be asked by the investigating officers and the importance of the evidence collection process, especially the sexual assault forensic examination of the victim by trained medical staff.
The primary officer or case investigator ultimately assigned responsibility for investigation of the sexual assault is tasked with an immense responsibility. In addition to formulating an investigative strategy, he/she will be the primary department contact with the victim. The interaction between the primary investigating officer and the victim can make or break the investigation, and requires a well trained and compassionate individual who understands the many effects a sexual assault may have upon the victim. The officer must relate in a professional and understanding manner with the victim while developing key facts of evidence in the case. He/she must understand the significant weight physical evidence will play, know the types of evidence that may be available in a sex crime, and skillfully interview the victim in an effort to identify potential evidence locations, establish the elements of the offense committed, and identify the offender while maintaining the victims trust and confidence. The primary investigator must also collaborate with crime scene personnel and the SAFE examiner(s) tasked with evidence collection responsibility so that their search is thorough based upon known details of the assault. The investigating officer will also be well served to include the prosecutor's office with details of the case early on. Their experience and understanding of the many pitfalls that may occur in the prosecution of the case lend invaluable guidance to the case investigator in making the strongest case possible for prosecution.
Probably the most difficult challenge faced by law enforcement personnel in a sexual assault investigation is their interaction with the victim. Sexual assault is a significant and very personal traumatic event in the victim's life, requiring the officer having a level of confidence in their ability to interact with the victim. I have seen very seasoned investigators of high caliber who are not comfortable in this task. It is imperative that management recognizes that every individual member in their agency has special skills and assigns those individuals where they best serve the needs of the community and attain the mission of the department. The primary investigating officer must be comfortable in their assignment and have the ability to relate to the victim in an understanding and compassionate manner, while remaining focused on developing their investigation towards the goal of prosecution and ultimate incarceration of the offender. Having that goal in mind, the investigative strategy must take into account at the onset the likely defenses posed by sex offenders; denial of the offense, misidentification of them as a suspect, or a consent defense by the suspect. The investigation should build factual evidence to overcome these three defenses with the understanding that defendants may likely change their version of events going into an adversarial court proceeding, thereby changing their mode of defense.
The investigative strategy in every sexual assault case will focus first on establishing whether or not the sexual activity took place. The investigating officer and victim service personnel play a key role in communicating this effectively with the victim. The victim's consent to examination by a sexual assault forensic examiner or SAFE Nurse is key in this issue. Once consent is obtained and the forensic examination of the victim and physical crime scene are completed, sexual activity will likely be established. If the offense is alleged to have been committed using force or threat, evidence may also be developed to corroborate this from available physical evidence. Physical evidence developed properly under these searches will weigh heavily in countering the offenders claims the act did not occur, especially in circumstances where DNA evidence is secured. An identification defense is usually raised in sexual assault cases involving strangers. Crime scene processing and the forensic examination of the victim will play a major role in properly identifying the offender. In focusing to address this issue the investigative strategy must also include a detailed interview of the victim and witnesses, if any, documenting a complete physical description of the offender. This should include not only the basics identifiers such as gender, race, age, height or weight, but should include as much detail as possible, like the offenders hair style, complexion, physical abnormalities, scars, marks or tattoos, specific language used by the offender, voice description, specific details of things the offender said to the victim or told the victim to do, the clothing or jewelry worn by offender and their unique characteristics, and any other pertinent details that will aid in identity. Officer's who interview victims of a sexual assault should explain why they must delve into every detail of the offense with the victim, as uncomfortable as it may be for the victim to relive. It is only through this thorough interview that details can be documented and the best case will be made in properly identifying the offender. The interviewing officer must also understand that additional interviews may be necessary, and that the victim will likely not remember every detail early on. It is likely that as the investigation progresses the victim will remember additional information.
Finally, the investigative strategy should address any potential issue of consent. It is a known fact that the majority of sexual assaults are committed by offenders who previously knew or had some type of contact with their victim. The offender may readily admit there was a sexual act that occurred, but maintain it was consensual. The investigation will focus primarily on evidence to establish that consent was absent and that force or threat was present. In addition to the forensic examination of the victim and inspection of the crime scene location for physical evidence to corroborate non consent, the victim interview will again play a key role. To establish the assault was not consensual, the investigator must focus on several key issues. Those issues will include a detailed account of the victim's thoughts and feelings during the assault, the suspect's size and strength in comparison with the victim's, evidence of physical or verbal resistance, or intimidation of the victim and fear of harm, evidence of genital or non genital injury during the forensic examination, information about the environment in which the assault took place such as isolation, and information regarding the victim's post-assault behavior, including post-traumatic stress. Again, the importance of the investigator's interview surrounding these issues must be shared with the victim to establish an understanding of their relevance to a successful and complete investigation.
During the investigative process, the police officers assigned must, above all, make every effort to keep an open mind and refrain from judging the information obtained from the victim. Every police officer will respond differently, depending on his or her own background, personality, professional experience and the circumstances of the assault. If their respective agency provides them with a solid foundation of good training with guidelines and protocols in effectively responding to and investigating sexual assaults, there is a much better chance the offender will be identified, arrested, convicted and incarcerated. The sexual assault victim will be empowered, and the criminal justice system will avoid a situation where the victim is re-victimized by the system.