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Shifting the Paradigm for Investigating Trauma Victimization 

 

 (Photo by Colby T. Hauser, USACIDC)

The Forensic Experiential Trauma Interview (FETI) utilizes information about the parts of the brain that experience trauma.  This technique not only reduces the inaccuracy of the information obtained but enhances understanding of the experience, increasing the likelihood that judges and juries will also understand the event.  This type of interview technique is being employed by Army CID special agents and other criminal investigators trained by Russell Strand, a retired U.S. Army CID special agent and the current chief of the Family Advocacy Law Enforcement Training Division at the U.S. Army Military Police School.

Russell Strand was selected by the End Violence Against Women International Board of Directors to receive their 2012 Visionary Award for his work with the military. Strand emphasized the great job being done in the military to identify sex offenders and hold them accountable.  While Strand is proud of the work the military has done he admits much work remains. The Army has been looking at research to find better ways to relate to the victim's experience, and identify sex offenders and hold them accountable.  Research also suggests first responders need to re-evaluate their reliance on their instincts when dealing with trauma victims.
 

Investigating and prosecuting sexual assaults is very difficult.  Victims seldom report and even if they do, they frequently behave in ways that make successful prosecution less likely, for example, they commonly delay reporting, minimize, and self-blame. Often victims are not believed because they have been seen with their rapists and appear to be willingly involved with them.

Good victims are bad witnesses, according to Strand, who explains:  "Offenders are so good at what they do. They’re going to use alcohol, drugs and trauma so (the victims) don’t remember much."  In addition, the trauma itself impacts the brain, effectively shutting down cognition and leaving the more primitive mid-brain and brainstem to experience and record the event. Strand explains, “While the more primitive portions of the brain are generally very good at recording experiential and sensory information, they do not do very well at recording the type of information law enforcement professionals have been trained to obtain, i.e., the ‘who, what, when, where, why, and how.’”

 

Memory largely consists of three basic elements: electrical, chemical and vibrations/frequencies. Stress and trauma routinely interrupt the memory process thereby changing the memory in ways most people do not accurately appreciate. One of the mantras within the criminal justice system is “inconsistent statements equal a lie”.  Strand contends that nothing could be further from the truth when stress and trauma impact memory.

In fact, when a person is stressed or traumatized, good solid neurobiological science routinely demonstrates that inconsistent statements are not only the norm, they can also be a hallmark of the effects of stress and trauma. What many in the criminal justice field have been educated to believe people do when they lie (changes in body language, affect, ah-filled pauses, lack of eye contact, etc.) actually occur naturally when human beings are highly stressed or traumatized. Strand feels strongly that the science of memory and trauma must be applied to interview approaches and techniques.

 
Law enforcement as well as the general population believes the cognitive (thinking) brain will always capture the facts.  However, traumatic events like sexual assault are not perceived or experienced the same way that most of us experience a non-traumatic event. Most interview techniques have been developed to interview the cognitive brain (“Just the facts, ma’am”) and obtain cognitive information, such as the color of shirt, description of the suspect, time frame, and other important information.

 
Many trauma victims are not only unable to accurately provide this type of information, but when asked to do so often inadvertently provide inaccurate information.  While past training and experience has focused on the cognitive brain, research clearly shows the cognitive is not generally involved in experiencing or recording the traumatic incident.  What are needed are methods to properly interview the portions of the brain that actually recorded the experience.

Strand describes the problem in terms of “dimensions”.  Professionals within the criminal justice system are often trained to respond to a three-dimensional experience (one that is full of sensory data) but collect and document what “happened” in a one dimensional manner (cold, hard facts).  This information is then presented to judges and juries.  They are expected to make appropriate judgments by filling in the blanks, but the blanks can’t be filled in and the richness of the experience is lost.  Indeed, some victim blaming may be the default reaction of judges and juries who see victim behavior out of its sensory context.

Strand proposes focusing on the three dimensional experience.  So, for example, the gut-wrenching fear a victim experienced, her perception of danger, what she smelled perhaps, need to be collected and preserved along with facts.  This experiential  evidence completes the package  presented to judges and juries, allowing them to truly understand and appreciate what the victim experienced– the full three dimensional experience. 

Currently, most criminal investigations focus on two major categories of evidence – physical evidence and testimonial evidence. This evidence is found by processing crime scenes, collecting DNA and other valuable physical evidence, and collecting testimonial evidence through interviews and interrogations. Often overlooked and underappreciated, however, is a class of evidence called forensic physiological evidence. This evidence is based on documented psychological and physical reactions to a crime experienced or witnessed by an individual.    These reactions can include nausea, flashbacks, muscle rigidity, trembling, terror, memory gaps, sights, sounds, smells, or other psychological or physical responses to the experience.  

Sexual assault investigations may produce little or no physical evidence due to the nature of the crime, especially if only “constructive force” (non-violent physical force) is used by the offender. Traditional testimonial evidence can be altered both by poor cognitive memories and impact of stress and trauma on those memories. 

Traumatic events diminish and sometimes distort the cognitive or thinking memory.  A different more primitive part of the brain collects the physiological impact.  This impact is collected with much greater accuracy and remembered with far more precision. The impact of the physiological experience also continues to produce potential physiological evidence long after the event. Physiological evidence is often the only evidence available to distinguish between consent/non-consent and levels of incapacitation. It is also extremely beneficial in demonstrating the three dimensional experience and subsequent victim reactions and behaviors.

Russell Strand believes the Forensic Experiential Trauma Interview (FETI) is an innovative way to “interview the brainstem”.  He describes the technique as built on research and experience surrounding child forensic interviews, critical incident stress debriefing, and neurobiology.

 




















Use of the FETI technique in domestic violence cases is also emerging as an extremely promising strategy for increasing successful interventions, investigations and prosecutions. Utilizing the FETI enhances the proper collection of forensic physiological evidence.  It also increases the amount of evidence that can be collected when individuals experience stressful and traumatic events. Once victims are allowed the opportunity to share their experience and work through some of the trauma during the interview, they are often much more capable of providing the details surrounding the experience than they were able to using traditional interview techniques.  Strand believes this is nothing short of a paradigm shift.

Click here to read an interview with Russell Strand.

For more information contact Russell Strand
Russell.strand@us.army.mil





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