Best Practice FAQs

Best Practice FAQs

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Should joint interviews be conducted by the law enforcement investigator and the Sexual Assault Forensic Examiner (SAFE)?

When the initial response to a sexual assault report takes place at a hospital or exam facility, some communities have a policy or practice of conducting victim interviews jointly, with responding officers and forensic examiners both in the room. This may help to improve communications between the two professionals, and it can potentially reduce the number of redundant questions asked of the victim. It also reinforces the team concept and may help victims feel the professionals are working together to provide the best and most coordinated services possible. However, there are some cautions to consider.

For example, when joint interviews are conducted, it must be clear to everyone involved that more detailed interviews will still need to be conducted by each professional separately. This is because they have different purposes.

The purpose of an interview by a forensic examiner, such as a sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE) or sexual assault forensic examiner (SAFE), is to:

  • Obtain information about the sexual act(s) committed, to guide a comprehensive medical forensic exam and collect biological samples.
  • Elicit information about any physical injuries or discomfort, both for forensic documentation as well as medical evaluation and treatment.
  • Determine whether the exam findings are consistent with the history of the sexual assault, as provided by the victim.

In contrast, the purpose of a law enforcement interview is to:

  • Obtain a detailed account of the victim’s experiences before, during, and after the sexual assault.
  • Determine whether legal elements are met for one or more criminal offenses.
  • Identify additional sources of information and potential evidence.

Because of their different purposes, some professionals believe that the two interviews are best conducted separately. This allows health care providers to focus on their mission of patient care, which will likely elicit different information from the law enforcement interview. It is also important for victims to be able to address any concerns they may have about their medical history and treatment options confidentially. This information is typically not relevant or even appropriate to include in the law enforcement investigation.

The law enforcement interview has a very different purpose, and it is likely to be longer because it covers a wider range of topics related to the sexual assault, including: the events before, during and after the incident; the suspect, victim, and any witnesses; and the location of crime scene(s), along with any potential evidence that can be recovered. The primary danger with joint interviews is that roles can become muddled, and the SAFE/SANE might be drawn too far into the criminal investigation and the law enforcement function. This can leave SAFEs/SANEs vulnerable to charges of bias when they testify at trial, which may weaken their testimony on scientific and medical matters.

The bottom line is this: If any part of the victim interview will be conducted jointly by law enforcement and the forensic examiner, it must be narrowly focused on information that meets the purpose of both types of interviews. Then separate interviews must also be conducted, and clearly differentiated from one another.

For more information, see the Online Training Institute (OLTI) module Effective Victim Interviewing: Helping Victims Retrieve and Disclose Memories of Sexual Assault.

Should investigators record their interviews with sexual assault victims?

Yes, whenever possible. When preparing to conduct a detailed interview with a sexual assault victim, investigators should make preparations for videorecording (or at least audiorecording) their interviews with a sexual assault victim. Interviews with child victims have been recorded for years, with obvious benefits; many of the same advantages exist for adult and adolescent victims.

  • The primary advantage of recording a victim interview (whether audio or video) is that it provides a more reliable method of documentation than written notes. In other words, it yields the “best record” of the interview.
  • Investigators are also able to listen more carefully to victims when their interview is being recorded, because they are not trying to take notes or write a report at the same time. They aren’t even necessarily piecing together events in a chronological timeline. This can be accomplished later. The investigator can simply listen to the victim’s narrative and jot down questions to ask later when the narrative is complete.
  • Recorded interviews also communicate to the victim that the investigator is focused on the victim’s statements and is taking the case seriously.
  • Recording preserves the victim’s own words and statements. This is important because statements are often synopsized, and during that process they can be misinterpreted, or conclusions can be drawn about a statement that are inaccurate.
  • Recordings make it possible to determine the source of any inconsistent information. In many cases, a recording will reveal that the person responsible for an inconsistency is not the victim, but the investigator or other professional who either documented a fact incorrectly, or simply misunderstood or misinterpreted something the victim said.
  • Recordings can have the additional benefit of protecting the investigator if a complaint or misunderstanding should arise because of what was said.
  • Finally, recordings can be reviewed for training and supervisory purposes, to improve the quality of interviews conducted by agency personnel.

When developing a policy for recording victim interviews, it is critically important to advise victims that their interview will be recorded and offer them the services of an advocate. Investigators and advocates can then discuss any questions or concerns the victim may have. However, law enforcement professionals who routinely record their interviews find that most victims do not have a problem with it, as long as the investigator advises them of this fact, and explains that this will allow them to preserve their exact words, and listen more carefully and document information more accurately.

For more information, see the Online Training Institute (OLTI) module Effective Victim Interviewing: Helping Victims Retrieve and Disclose Memories of Sexual Assault. EVAWI also a training bulletin specifically on the topic of Recording Victim Interviews.

Should law enforcement get a sworn statement from the victim at the conclusion of their interview?

No, you do not need to get a sworn statement from a victim of sexual assault, or a victim or witness of any other type of crime.

Some law enforcement agencies have a policy or practice of getting sworn statements from sexual assault victims, but there is no legal requirement for it and no obvious advantage in terms of a successful investigation and possible prosecution. The reality is that cases are prosecuted based on the strength of the evidence. If the investigative findings establish a body of evidence to corroborate the victim’s statement, this will be far more powerful and persuasive than any signature on a form. Conversely, the victim’s sworn statement alone will not be sufficient to prosecute a sexual assault case, if it lacks corroborative evidence collected and documented during a solid investigation.

There is therefore no clear advantage, but many critical disadvantages:

  • First, requiring victims to sign a sworn statement typically means the investigator must complete the statement, type it up, and get the victim to sign it before they leave. This seriously limits their ability to conduct an effective interview, following practices outlined in this module. If investigators are expected to take notes and write a report during the interview, they cannot take the time needed to focus on listening and asking good follow-up questions – let alone digesting, processing, analyzing, and compiling the information, then producing a well-written report. A better strategy is to allow investigators the time they need to conduct the best possible interview, and document the statements thoroughly and accurately later.
  • Second, requiring a sworn statement negatively affects the rapport that is key to a successful interview. The practice communicates a fundamental distrust of the victim’s information, and it is frankly frightening to most victims. This is especially true when the statement includes a perjury clause, requiring the victim to sign a statement affirming that the written information is accurate under penalty of perjury.
  • Then there is concern that the investigator might have recorded something incorrectly, and the victim didn’t catch it before signing the sworn statement. In fact, the likelihood of inaccuracies will only be increased with this practice, because obtaining a sworn statement makes the interview process longer and more difficult for both victim and investigator. In other words, this practice creates a situation that virtually guarantees inaccuracies in the victim’s statement, then requires victims to sign a statement under penalty of perjury that it is accurate.
  • The practice also implies that the victim was able to recall “everything” during the interview, making it more difficult to add new information when the victim recalls additional details, or when the investigator conducts follow-up interviews as part of an evolving investigation. With a sworn statement, it can look as if this natural process of recalling additional information raises questions about the accuracy of the initial statement. Victims will likely fear the possibility of a perjury charge if they revise or contradict something they previously said to the investigator.
  • Finally, this practice makes it more difficult to correct inaccuracies. Without a sworn statement, it is a rather straightforward matter to follow-up with the victim to clarify any inaccuracies. However, once the victim has signed a sworn statement, they are faced with two bad choices: (a) continuing with information they know is inaccurate, or (b) correcting it and facing the possibility of a perjury charge.

How does any of this help meet the goal of successfully interviewing victims and investigating sexual assault reports? It does not. In fact, it makes this goal more difficult to achieve, by creating barriers and solidifying the fears that keep many victims from reporting and engaging the criminal justice system in the first place.

For more information, see the Online Training Institute (OLTI) module Effective Victim Interviewing: Helping Victims Retrieve and Disclose Memories of Sexual Assault. EVAWI also a training bulletin specifically on the topic of Sworn Statements.

Is there a recommended time frame for investigators to schedule a detailed interview of a sexual assault victim?

In general, EVAWI recommends that the detailed interview with a sexual assault victim be scheduled 2-3 days after the initial response, especially in an acute reporting scenario. This allows time for investigators to review all the available information, and arrange for any interpreting services or other accommodations that might be needed for that detailed interview. This may also allow enough time for the victim’s acute stress levels to subside, through rest, recovery, and the support of loved ones and/or advocates. But there is no universal timeframe for achieving these goals; each victim should be approached as a unique person, with individual needs.

Investigators should work with victims to select a time for the detailed interview that best meets their needs and convenience, as well as any constraints regarding childcare, family responsibilities, work obligations, transportation, privacy, safety, etc. It is very important to avoid creating any unnecessary stress or hassle for victims, or increasing any threat of losing a job, childcare, or other critical arrangements. Once these considerations are addressed, the interview should be scheduled as soon as practically possible (e.g., within 2-3 days). This is done to prevent memory loss on the part of the victim, and also to reduce external influences that may impact the victim’s statement (family members, caregivers, or other professionals involved in the case).

On the other hand, some victims in a non-acute response may not want or need to wait for the detailed interview. If they have finally worked up the courage to contact law enforcement after some period of time, they may be ready and able to share a lot more detailed information than basic facts. In this scenario, it’s possible that the reporting officer will conduct a more in-depth interview during the initial response. However, even in this scenario, a second interview will still be needed once the investigation begins to evolve, and additional questions or clarification are needed.

For more information, see the Online Training Institute (OLTI) module Effective Victim Interviewing: Helping Victims Retrieve and Disclose Memories of Sexual Assault.