Best Practice FAQs

Best Practice FAQs

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What is the standard caseload for detectives investigating sexual assault cases?

Although there is no official industry standard for how many cases a detective investigating sexual assault should carry, there are some informal standards that departments across the country have been using. For example, an audit was conducted in Portland, Oregon in June 2007, which included a review of data from nine additional cities. The report concluded that the average detective had a median annual caseload of 54, compared to Portland’s 5-year average of 56.

In Allocation of Personnel: Investigations, William Prummell identified the industry standard for a detective working major crimes (other than homicide) as 6-8 cases per month or 72-96 cases per year. He then utilized a formula and case assignment criteria from the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office in Florida and determined that detectives in that agency working major crimes (other than homicide) were assigned an average of 6 cases per month or 72 cases per year. This is on the lower end of the industry standard, but otherwise demonstrates consistency between the theory of an industry standard and the practice in at least this one particular agency.

Should investigators use a polygraph or other techniques for lie detection with victims of sexual assault?

No. In fact, many states have laws prohibiting law enforcement from offering or requiring a polygraph examination for sexual assault victims, or from using the results of such an examination to determine whether criminal charges will be filed. In addition, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) requires all US states, territories, and tribes that receive federal STOP grant funds to prohibit using polygraphs or other truth telling devices with sexual assault victims as a condition for proceeding with an investigation.

These state and federal prohibitions are based both on the lack of scientific evidence establishing the validity of the polygraph and other techniques for lie detection as well as the negative impact they can have on the trust, rapport, and well-being of victims. For example, the National Academies of Science (2003) concluded from their review that evidence for the validity of the polygraph is “scanty and scientifically weak” (p. 212). Based on this conclusion, several organizations have provided guidance specifically for law enforcement agencies on sexual assault response and investigation:

For more information, please see the Online Training Institute (OLTI) module False Reports: Moving Beyond the Issues to Successfully Investigate 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 taped 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 audiotaping or videotaping) 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 ask victims to sign a release waiver when they choose not to participate in the investigation of their report?

When victims are asked if they want to press charges, and they say “no” or express reluctance, some agencies have a policy or practice of presenting victims with a form (often referred to as a release waiver) to document the victim’s “request” to terminate or unfound the investigation. A few release waivers go even further by preventing victims from making any further inquiries or cooperating with any future investigation or prosecution of their report. Some law enforcement agencies erroneously believe this type of waiver protects them from liability for failing to pursue an investigation.

Yet these waivers place unfair and inappropriate pressure on victims to make an immediate decision about their participation in an investigation, and they sidestep the law enforcement agency’s responsibility by simply shutting down the investigation. A better approach is for officers to courteously inform victims about alternative reporting options, and then document their decision in their written report. In their conversation with victims, responding officers can clearly convey that the door to an investigation remains open, if victims later decide that they are able to participate in the process.

There is typically no need for any type of form when officers explain to victims what their options are for reporting and participating in an investigation. Victim interviews and preferences should simply be documented in the officer’s narrative report, along with other information collected and documented. However, if a form is going to be used, it could look like the Victim Preference Statement developed by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS). This form begins by confirming that victims have had an opportunity to consult with a victim advocate or counselor, and that they have been informed of their rights as a crime victim.

The form then documents: “At this time, I have decided not to provide additional information or participate in the investigation and prosecution of the suspect.” By signing the NCIS preference statement, victims explicitly acknowledge that “I may change my mind and provide information for this investigation at a later time.”

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

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.

What training is available for campus law enforcement professionals on sexual assault response and investigations?

EVAWI frequently receives requests to provide training for campuses on sexual assault response and investigation, including campus law enforcement investigations, legal obligations under Title IX, and Clery Act responsibilities. EVAWI does not offer training specifically for campus professionals, but the following organizations do:

  • The National Center for Campus Public Safety, whose mission is to bring together all forms of campus public safety and improve services to those who are charged with providing a safe environment on the nation’s campuses.

However, we also encourage campus professionals to take advantage of other training resources that EVAWI offers, like the Online Training Institute and webinars. We often explain to college and university professionals that they will learn as much, if not more, from such training that is not specifically focused on campuses.

For many professionals who work in specialized settings (like college campuses, military installations, tribal lands, or corrections), it is common to think that the issues in that environment are very different, rather than recognizing that the foundation for every sexual assault investigation is the same. On campuses and in our communities, the dynamics of sexual violence are fundamentally the same – as are aspects of our responses to victims, suspects, and the investigation of reports.

What percentage of victims withdraw from the criminal justice process, after initially reporting their sexual assault to law enforcement?

As many as one-third to one-half of all sexual assault victims withdraw their participation from the law enforcement investigation at some point after initially reporting – and this is especially likely when the victim and offender know each other (Frazier et al., 1994; Spohn, Rodriguez, & Koss, 2008; Tellis & Spohn, 2008). There are many reasons for this, including a number of critical fears, doubts, and other concerns that prevent victims from reporting their sexual assault and remaining engaged with the criminal justice process. These factors also deter many victims from reaching out for help by accessing other community services (Campbell, 2008).

If victims are not ready or able to participate in an investigation, the best response for law enforcement is to courteously inform them about their options and document their preferences in the written report. In their conversation with victims, responding officers can clearly convey that the door to an investigation remains open, if victims later decide that they are able to participate in the process. This also means victims should never be recorded in documentation as “uncooperative” or “declining prosecution.” Rather, reports should simply reflect the fact that victims are unable to participate in the investigation or prosecution “at this time.”

Campbell, R. (2008). The Psychological Impact of Rape Victims’ Experiences with the Legal, Medical and Mental Health Systems. American Psychologist, 63 (8), 702-717.

Frazier, P., Candell, S., Arikian, N., & Tofteland, A. (1994). Rape Survivors and the Legal System. In M. Costanzo and S. Oskamp (Eds.), Violence and the Law (Chapter 6, p. 135-158). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Spohn, C., Rodriguez, N., & Koss, M. (2008, November). The “Victim Declined to Prosecute”: Accounting for Lack of Cooperation in Sexual Assault Cases. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology, St. Louis, MO.

Tellis, K.M. & Spohn, C. (2008). The Sexual Stratification Hypothesis Revisited: Testing Assumptions about Simple Versus Aggravated Rape. Journal of Criminal Justice, 36, 252-261.