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Interview Strategies for Sexual Assault and Rape Investigations

Interview Strategies for Sexual Assault and Rape Investigations

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* This article is part of In Public Safety’s series recognizing Sexual Assault Awareness month.*

By Nicole Cain, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice at American Military University

Rape and sexual assaults are horrendous crimes that devastate victims and their families. It is challenging to analyze the number of rapes and sexual assaults that occur annually because these crimes are underreported.

One study identified several reasons why rape victims do not file police reports, which included feelings of guilt and embarrassment, the fear of not being believed, and a mistrust of the criminal justice system. Detectives who are responsible for investigating these crimes play a pivotal role in assuaging victims’ fears and uncertainties about the criminal justice process.

The Issue of Consent

The legal definition of rape varies slightly from state to state. A general definition of rape is the penetration of the sexual organ, mouth, or anus of one person by another without consent. It can also include sexual relations with a person below a specific age, such as a minor. Additionally, the statutes also protect people who are mentally deficient and incapable of consent or intoxicated to a degree where they are incapable of giving consent. Consent is an issue with sex crimes because minor children cannot consent, mentally handicapped persons cannot consent, and intoxicated persons cannot consent.

In instances of non-stranger assaults, the suspect may claim that the sex was consensual, so the investigator must prove that it was not. It is important to address the issue of consent early in an investigation because the defense will claim that the victim and the suspect engaged in consensual sex.

Role of the First Responding Officer

The first responding officer generally conducts an initial interview with the victim in order to obtain a description of the offender, the nature of the injuries sustained by the victim, and the location of the crime scene. It is imperative during the initial phases of a sex crime investigation to ensure that the victim receives proper medical care. In addition, it is beneficial for the victim to consent to a sexual assault forensic examination.

The victim’s body contains valuable evidence that must be preserved, identified, collected and analyzed. In essence, the victim is a walking crime scene. During the sexual assault forensic examination, the doctor will document any bruising, abrasions, or other injuries on the victim as well as any trauma to the vaginal, penal, or anal region. Additionally, the examiner will collect evidence from the victim to include semen, hairs, vaginal fluid, blood, and trace evidence. The examiner will also collect a urine sample which will be analyzed to determine if any date rape drugs were ingested by the victim.

[Related article: Overview of Sexual Assault Crime Scene Processing]

In sexual assault investigations, the primary responsibilities of detectives are the physical and emotional well-being of the victim, the preservation of evidence, and the apprehension of the suspect.

Victims of sexual assaults are particularly vulnerable to long term emotional problems. Investigating sexually oriented crimes is challenging for detectives because it requires conducting an in-depth interview with the victim without causing further emotional harm. The interview is a vital part of the investigation and must be managed with care. It is necessary that the investigator creates a desirable atmosphere in order to ensure a successful interview.

[Related article: Tips for Investigating Cases of Child Sex Abuse]

Some victims of sexual assault and rape are traumatized and feel as though they have lost control over their lives. In order to conduct a successful interview with a rape victim, detectives must step out of their traditional role of simply obtaining the facts from a victim.

Interview Strategies for Detectives

Prior to the interview, the detectives build a rapport with the victim, demonstrate empathy, and validate her credibility. Detectives provide the victim with the opportunity to make small choices, thus giving some semblance of control. For example, the detective asks the victim if she wants someone present with her during the interview and allows her to select the interview location. The location should be private and free from distractions.

To begin the interview, investigators ask the victim an open-ended question like, “Tell me what happened today.” The key is allowing the victim to tell the entire story without interruptions. In order to add detail or clarify discrepancies, the detective may ask the victim more specific questions once she has completed her narrative.

Investigators must ensure the victim provides these essential elements during the interview:

  • The victim’s behavior prior to the assault
    • Where did the victim and suspect first come into contact?
    • Was alcohol a factor?
    • Was the rape facilitated by drugs?
    • Was the victim alone or with friends who could be potential witnesses?
  • The victim’s behavior during the crime
    • Was there shoving, kicking, or scratching aimed at the offender?
    • What did the victim say to the offender such as “no,” “stop,” or “I don’t want to do this”?
  • What is the victim’s relationship with the suspect? Is the offender a stranger or a known person to the victim?
  • What were the suspect’s actions prior to, during, and after the assault?
  • What is the chronology of the specific sex acts that were performed?
  • What force was used or threatened by the offender?

These elements are necessary in addressing the issue of consent in non-stranger rapes. They can also assist in identifying potential witnesses and gathering additional evidence such as video surveillance from businesses or public areas, smartphone videos or photographs, etc. Specific details about the incident help investigators determine the suspect’s motive and method of operation which can lead to identifying the suspect or linking similar crimes.

At the conclusion of the interview, detectives generally ask the victim if there is any other information she wants to add or any other detail she remembers. Detectives also explain police procedure and the criminal justice process, so that the victim can mentally prepare for what is to come.

A successful interview is one that causes no further harm to the victim and results in obtaining invaluable information that assists in the identification and apprehension of the suspect.

About the Author: Nicole Cain has more than 14 years of law enforcement experience serving in a variety of capacities including patrol operations, uniform crime scene, community-oriented policing (COP), and criminal investigations. She is currently assigned to investigate violent crimes that include: homicides, sexual batteries, robberies, aggravated batteries, and aggravated assaults. During her career in law enforcement, she has authored police reports, arrest affidavits, and search warrants, observed autopsies, testified in court, processed crime scenes, interviewed witnesses and conducted interrogations. Nicole is currently full-time faculty member at American Military University and American Public University teaching courses in criminology and forensics.

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