In 2002, my wife, Meg, was returning to our house in Washington D.C. from book club with several friends, and it was close to midnight when she got off at the nearest bus stop and started walking to our house.
What happened next was a blur. A man was walking toward her, and she looked down at the sidewalk. The man passed her, and then all of a sudden she was on the ground struggling as he ripped her purse from her. She made it to our house with the help of a neighbor who saw her zig-zagging down the street in a state of utter confusion. She had suffered a horrific concussion.
When police eventually showed up at the emergency room with us, they asked the usual who, what, when, where, and how questions. Meg was incredibly confused. She told the police that she must have tripped and fell, hitting her head on the sidewalk. Her answers made little sense. She couldn’t seem to piece together what had happened to her. The officers spent about five minutes with her and then left. We never heard from them again. It was only the next day that Meg remembered that the man carried what appeared to be a gun in his hand as he passed her. Then she remembered the feeling of the butt of that gun crashing against the back of her skull. She hadn’t tripped after all. But why didn’t she remember this when the police interviewed her the night before?
Trauma affects memory
Hang on, we’re about to get scientific. Studies on the neurobiology of trauma have revealed why it is so difficult for victims of trauma to recall the traumatic event in a logical, chronological fashion. The human brain experiences events and records memories in different ways and in different locations. When we are experiencing normal, non-traumatic events, our actions are controlled by the cerebral cortex. The cerebral cortex is our rational brain, and it chooses the focus of our attention, weighs alternatives, reflects on choices, and regulates our emotions and thoughts. The hippocampus processes this information into memories. It takes all of the sensory information that a person is experiencing, organizes it, and stores it. When someone recalls a memory of an event where no trauma was involved, her memory should be orderly and the narrative chronological.
When a person experiences trauma, a number of hormones are released into her body that disrupt the orderly storage of information. These include adrenaline (for the flight response), cortisol (to increase energy), opiates (to dull pain), and oxytocin (to increase positive feelings). During a traumatic event, the rational brain frequently shuts down, leaving the amygdala, or primitive brain, to experience and record the traumatic event. This part of the brain focuses on the danger or threat, operates the primitive functions, and triggers automatic responses like fight, flight, or freeze. The amygdala does not weigh courses of action. Memories recorded by the amygdala are often fragmented and illogical.
In other words, traumatic memories are encoded differently in the brain. The information regarding the sequence of events, context, and details are poorly encoded and remembered. The primitive brain focuses on the details most important to survival such as the threat of harm (“weapon focus”), emotion, and sensation. These memories are often called flashbulb memories because they are brief and intense but scattered and incomplete.
Law enforcement agencies have been aware of the effects of trauma on officers involved in shootings. After such a traumatic event there may be “critical incident amnesia.” This makes it hard for an officer involved in a shooting to give a detailed account of the incident immediately after it occurred. In fact, studies on officer-involved shootings have shown that an officer’s memory will increase by up to 50 percent after one sleep cycle and by up to 90 percent after a second sleep cycle.
Because of the effect of trauma on the brain after an officer-involved shooting, many police agencies have policies that discourage the immediate interview of an officer involved in a shooting. In fact, the influential International Association of Chiefs of Police in its Officer-Involved Shootings Investigative Protocols suggests that “whenever feasible, officers should have some recovery time before providing a full formal statement.” The protocol goes on to suggest that “at least one night’s sleep is beneficial prior to being interviewed.”
While these policies acknowledge the effects of trauma on these officers, oftentimes the criminal justice system fails to recognize these same effects on victims of violent crime. We expect victims to be able to provide the who, what, when, and where right after a crime has been reported. This approach can have devastating impacts on our ability to successfully gather evidence and often results in cases being closed before an arrest is made.
The neurobiology of sexual assault
Sexual assault is traumatic. Not surprisingly, victims of sexual assault are frequently unable to provide a coherent, logical, chronological recounting of the events that they have experienced. This fact has caused an enormous number of sexual assault cases to be shelved before a thorough investigation is undertaken.
Rebecca Campbell, a professor of psychology at Michigan State University, has spent several years researching the neurobiology of sexual assault. As part of her study, she looked at data on sexual assault from six metropolitan jurisdictions over a 12-year period. In her study, released in 2012, Dr. Campbell found that 86 percent of reported sexual assaults were never referred by police to the prosecution. Additionally, almost 70 percent of the time, victims felt that police encouraged them not to seek charges. Victims were frequently asked about their dress or what behavior they might have exhibited to provoke the assault. Most victims reported that they left this initial interaction with the police feeling blamed, depressed, and anxious.
As part of her research, Dr. Campbell interviewed victims and the officers who had investigated some of the cases. She found that investigators were not malicious in their advice to victims, but rather they had a poor understanding of the behaviors of trauma victims. Simply put, they didn’t believe the victims because the victims could not give chronological narratives of their experience and because the victims often exhibited “counter-intuitive” behaviors during the course of the rape.
One of those behaviors is called tonic immobility. During a sexual assault, the victim will suffer an incredible release of hormones (adrenaline, cortisol, opiates, oxytocin, and corticosteroids) into the blood. These hormones not only impair the victim’s ability to record and remember the event but they also affect her ability to respond. We often hear that trauma can induce a “fight or flight” response in a victim. While this is true, it is only partially so. Trauma can induce three responses: fight, flight, or freeze. This freezing, also called tonic immobility, is common in all forms of trauma but it is particularly common in rape. Tonic immobility, or “rape-induced paralysis,” occurs up to 50 percent of the time in sexual assaults. Tonic immobility, like fight or flight, is a legitimate life-preserving strategy selected by the primitive brain. However, it is frequently misunderstood by law enforcement.
In one particular case study, Dr. Campbell talked to a woman who was forcibly raped at a party. After the first rapist finished, he invited a friend to have sex with the victim as well. During the course of the rape, the victim shut down and became completely unable to move. After a friend of the victim became aware of what was happening, she went in to find the victim lying completely still in the bed. She shook her friend and yelled at her, but the victim would not respond. She had to physically drag her friend out of the bed to break the state of tonic immobility. The victim went to the hospital where a rape kit was completed. She also filed a police report. The police department refused to pick up the rape kit and quickly dismissed the case. The officer who investigated the case told Dr. Campbell that the victim “just laid there, so she must have wanted it. No one wants to have a train pulled on them, so if she just laid there and took it she must have wanted it.” The officer told Dr. Campbell that he had no idea that tonic immobility could happen.
In Dr. Campbell’s study, investigators frequently cited the victim’s inability to provide a coherent, chronological narrative of the traumatic events during the initial interview as a reason to disbelieve the victim. But as we know, the trauma of a sexual assault makes it difficult for victims to immediately recount the event to police. Their memories are fragmented and disorganized just as the memories of officers involved in shootings are fragmented. Trauma is trauma. We need to respond to victims of sexual assault and other traumatic events in a way that treats them with respect and that will help us obtain the best, most accurate information.
Forensic Experiential Trauma Interview (FETI)
Law enforcement officers are trained to get the details of a crime from a victim or witness based on the assumption that the victim or witness will be able to recount the event with ease in a chronological fashion. This approach of asking who, what, when, where, and how ignores the role that the primitive brain plays in recording the details of a traumatic event. The primitive brain does a great job of recording experiential and sensory information, but it poorly records the kind of details that law enforcement professionals are trained to obtain.
Russell Strand of the United States Army Military Police School advocates the use of the Forensic Experiential Trauma Interview (FETI) for victims of trauma. FETI uses some principles from child forensic interviews, including the use of open-ended, non-leading questions; a soft interview room; and empathy. The concept behind this approach is to give the victim the opportunity to describe the experience of the traumatic event both physically and emotionally because that is how the event is recorded in the primitive brain. Rather than ask the victim to “start at the beginning,” for example, FETI allows the victim to recount what she remembers about the experience and what sensations and emotions were most powerful. Throughout the process the interviewer should show empathy with the trauma victim and give her the time she needs to put the scattered memories back together. This technique is a far cry from the traditional interrogation technique that many victims face.1
Our criminal justice system often treats victims as though they were third-party witnesses to their own crime. A better approach would be to consider the impact of the trauma on the victim by conducting an open, empathetic interview using FETI principles. In Dr. Campbell’s research she specifically recalled the experience of a 25-year-old woman who was raped by her brother’s friend at a Fourth of July party. According to this victim, her initial interview with the police was a terrible experience. Referring to the detective, she said, “He wouldn’t let up, pounding me with question after question after question. Trying to trick me. Trying to get me to mess up.” The detective would not give her a minute to think. After several minutes of this, the detective stormed off, and an older, more experienced detective came in to speak with her. This detective started the interview by asking the victim if she wanted a cup of coffee. He took the time to make the coffee just like she wanted it. He showed empathy for the victim and he was patient in the interview. She described this second interview as “like we were putting together a puzzle and drinking coffee.” At a subsequent interview with Dr. Campbell, the detective said that he has found in his experience that sexual assault victims do better when they have a few minutes to breathe. When this detective slowed down his questions, he gave the victim the chance to reconstruct the scattered, traumatic memories that were stored in her primitive brain.
When asked if he was worried that the woman could make up a story during such slow questioning, the detective said, “If they’re lying, we’ll catch it eventually. I think it’s just hard for victims to talk about and we just need to have a little patience.”
Considering the effects of trauma on memory, investigators should give strong consideration to conducting follow-up interviews with victims of trauma within 48 hours of the initial interview. Giving the victim a sleep cycle or two will allow the memories to consolidate in her mind and will improve her ability to recall the event by up to 90 percent.
As prosecutors, we aren’t involved in the front-line, initial contact with victims. However, as ministers of justice we must work to ensure that our criminal justice system uses the best methods possible to obtain evidence and information. By treating victims of trauma with empathy, patience, and understanding, the professionals in our criminal justice system will not only improve the experience of victims but will also obtain reliable and accurate information.
1 A detailed analysis of FETI is outside the scope of this article. However Strand’s article is available online and it is definitely worth a read. See The Forensic Experiential Trauma Interview (FETI), by Russell W. Strand, United States Military Police at www.tdcaa.com as a PDF; just look for this column in this issue of the Journal Archive.