RESPONDING TO THE NEEDS OF VICTIMS
By: Summit County Prosecurtor Sherri Bevan Walsh
The call comes in. A crime has just occurred and a victim needs assistance. You are dispatched and arrive in just minutes. When you arrive you notice the offender is gone but the victim remains. Now what do you do? And, maybe more importantly, what do you say?
Since law enforcement officers are usually first on the scene and first to interact with victims, an officer’s role is critical. Officers are in a unique position to assist victims immediately after the crime. First responders can encourage and facilitate participation in the process of prosecution, help victims cope with the immediate trauma of the crime, and help them regain a sense of security and control over their lives. That initial interaction will have a long-lasting impact on the victim’s view of police, investigators, prosecutors, and judges, and hopefully avoid re-victimization. The approach you use lays the foundation for all future interactions with the victim.
As soon as the responding officer’s most urgent tasks have been completed, attention can be focused on victims and their needs. At that point, how you approach and relate to victims is crucial to their recovery. This article will provide general tips for law enforcement when interacting with victims of crime. However, these are advisory only and should be considered in conjunction with your agency’s procedures and protocols.
Gaining a victim’s trust and cooperation is vital. Approach victims in a respectful and supportive manner. Telling a victim “you’re safe now” is an empty comment, especially if that victim is still living in the same location where the crime occurred. There is no guarantee the victim is truly safe. But you can tell a crime victim that you’re sorry this happened. Do not say that you understand what they are going through. Unless you are a crime victim, there is no way to truly understand what they are going through. Also, each victim reacts differently. Lumping all crime victims together in one group may, in their mind, diminish what happened to them. Avoid saying “you’re lucky, it could have been worse.” Yes, while the situation could have been worse, victims do not feel lucky. This type of comment, even if well intentioned, will undermine the feelings of the victim.
After checking if the victim has any physical injuries or needs immediate medical attention, ask them to tell you what happened in just a sentence or two. Try to help the victim focus on what they remember. Asking a victim to tell you what they remember reduces the pressure of thinking they’re expected to know everything in chronological order. This will help the victim focus on certain details and reduce feeling overwhelmed by the trauma of the event. Focusing on one or two details can also help the victim to gain some control during a time they feel they lost it.
Victims worry they won’t be believed. Reinforce that what happened was not their fault and that you believe them. Feeling believed and included in the process reduces trauma and could increase a victim’s willingness to cooperate. Also, become familiar with how trauma affects the brain and a person’s memory. The Forensic Experiential Trauma Interview created by Russell Strand, also known as FETI, helps those who work with crime victims better understand the impact of trauma. Using trauma informed techniques helps victims to recall important memories.
Give victims a business card with your name and contact information. This shows the victim that you are there to help. Encourage them to contact you if they have any questions or if you can be of further help. Explain the next steps, including the investigation process and how long it may take for your report to be ready. Tell victims about forthcoming law enforcement interviews or other kinds of interviews they can expect. Basically, keep the victim informed and involved. Provide referrals that are appropriate for the situation, such as a shelter or victim assistance program. Give the victim a victims’ rights pamphlet.
Pay attention to non-verbal communication – both yours and the victim’s. Observe the victim’s body language, such as their posture, facial expression, tone of voice, gestures, eye contact, and general appearance. This can help you understand and respond to what victims are feeling as well as to what they are saying. Assure victims that their emotional reactions to the crime are not uncommon. Empathize with victims.
Use your own body language to show concern, such as nodding your head, using natural eye contact, placing yourself at the victim’s level rather than standing over victims who are seated. Keep an open stance rather than crossing your arms, and speak in a calm, empathetic tone.
The emotional impact on the victim is difficult to predict. Victims may have feelings of self-blame, anger, shame, sadness, or denial. They may also lash out at the people who are trying to help, including law enforcement. Remaining calm as well as treating the victim with dignity and respect could help de-escalate the situation.
Responding to the needs of victims with a trauma informed approach will hopefully start the process of a successful investigation.
This article is not to be considered legal advice. Please consult your police legal advisor regarding any legal issue.
Sherri Bevan Walsh
Summit County Prosecuting Attorney