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A Victim-Centered Approach to Sex Crime Investigations

Thursday, April 29, 2010 at 4:00 AM

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Detective Bertina King of the Akron Police Department

Recently, a 3-member commission recommended a series of changes in the way the Cleveland police process and investigate sex crimes. The panel was convened in the wake of the imperial Avenue murders on the city's east side. Among its many criticisms of the department was that officers aren't sensitive enough toward victims of sexual assault. ideastream®'s David C. Barnett examines the prospect of "sensitivity training" for officers, and what other cities have done to make first responders more centered on the needs of victims.

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. 

After the Imperial Avenue murders came to light, critics called on Cleveland safety officials to develop better ways to handle sexual assaults, including being more sensitive to the emotional needs of victims.  Clark, who now directs police training for the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center, says that hasn’t traditionally been a job qualification for new recruits. 

DAN CLARK: When I started in the business, significant numbers of people coming into law enforcement were ex-military.  They already had the regimentation, and familiarity with weapons, they were good at taking orders, and those were seen as very desirable traits.

BERTINA KING: No one gets the police job because they want to be sensitive to victims, and touchy-feely, cuddly. 

As a detective on the Akron police force, Bertina King has won numerous commendations for her skills in working with victims of sexual assaults.  And she tries to pass on some of those insights to her colleagues who often seem preoccupied with just gathering facts. 

BERTINA KING: I always tell them, don’t stand over victims, when you go into the room.  You should ask them, “Is it okay if I sit down?” You don’t have to put your arms around them and hug them, but you can say, “I’m sorry this happened to you.  Sorry we’re meeting under these circumstances.” It’s not going to kill you to say that.

King says spending more time with the victim and establishing a sense of trust will yield more cooperation and help solve the case.  Several cities across the country have gone so far as to create sexual assault teams, which include specially trained detectives, a dedicated prosecutor, and a victims’ advocate. One example can be found in Burlington, Vermont, home to the Chittenden County Special Investigations Unit, established in 1992.  Scott Davidson heads this operation.

SCOTT DAVIDSON:  Sexual assault is a very intrusive type of investigation, and it really takes specialized training and experience in order to be able to prosecute and put together a good, substantive case. 

The members of the Chittenden Unit work very closely with each other, constantly sharing information --- they even eat meals together.  By having a number of agencies collaborate across the county, the funding of the unit can be spread out, but Davidson says, in a time of tight police budgets, it can be a challenge to maintain such a specialized team.

SCOTT DAVIDSON:  I have to tell you, it’s very difficult.  Our agency is held together with bubblegum and duct tape.  But, we are fiscally stable, we are strong, because of the commitment and the realization that this type of organization is needed. 

Community activists in Cleveland claim that if police had been more sensitive to some of Anthony Sowell’s alleged victims, as many as five of the eleven lives lost could have been saved.  Safety Director Martin Flask says victim-centered training will be given to all members of the city’s safety force.

MARTIN FLASK: This will not only involve the division of police personnel, but the training will also extend to 911 call-takers, our EMTs, and our fire first responders, who go to the scene of an incident in which a female or male rape victim has been traumatized. 

In addition, the mayor and police chief said they will upgrade the department’s sex crimes unit with new equipment.  But, nothing definitive has been said about when all of this is going to happen, or how much it’s going to cost. 

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Government/Politics, Health, Mental Health, Other, Community/Human Interest, Courts/Crime - Fire/Law Enforcement

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