The Emery County Domestic Violence Coalition held their 15th annual event. This year Donna Kelly was the guest speaker. Kelly is a sexual assault and domestic violence resource prosecutor for the Utah Attorney General's Office.
Law enforcement and other emergency responders frequently encounter people who have been traumatized. Until recently, there were very few studies on how trauma affects victims. Rebecca Campbell, PhD, NIJ Studies and Russell Strand, US Military Police school are leading researchers on the neurology of trauma.
There is definitely a divide when it comes to victim advocates and law enforcement officers. Law enforcement officers are trained to detect deceitful behavior in people, such as an inability to remember, not reporting a crime and sketchy behavior. These cues are consistent behaviors that would lead a law enforcement officer to believe someone is lying. Often times, victims of trauma exhibit the same behaviors leading officers to believe a victim is lying.
In a 2012, Campbell study these were actually responses given about sexual assault victims from police officers. "The stuff they say makes no sense. So no, I don't believe them, and yeah, I let them know that". "No way it's true. No one would act like that if it was true." "They lie all of the time I can tell." In one police report it was noted, complainant refused to cooperate. Case closed.
In the same study a victim advocate said, "It's hard to change what they do to victims. They don't believe them and then victims give up. It happens over and over again".
One victim's response to the treatment she received was "He didn't believe me and he treated me like (expletive). Didn't surprise me when he said there wasn't anything to go on to do anything. Didn't surprise me but it still hurt." With such polar views it is easy to see how victims may be neglected by the law enforcement and judicial community.
There are two parts of the brain, the cortex and the amygdala. The cortex is the thinking, logical or "rational" part of the brain. The amygdala is the emotional or the "primitive" part of the brain. The cortex part of the brain will always trump the amygdala part of the brain except in trauma. In trauma, the amygdala turns off the cortex. It focuses involuntarily on the danger or threat. It operates on primitive functions. There is no problem solving or highly logical thinking.
During an interview with a suspect the cortex part of the brain is in control. The suspect's story will be rational, chronological and orderly. The victim's behavior will be totally different because the amygdala is in control. They will be terrified, and overwhelmed. The victim's story will be fragmented, illogical and not chronological. The assault experience for a victim is remembered in fragments. They can recall sensations such as smells, sounds and tastes because the primitive part of the brain is in control.
Studies have also been conducted on critical incident amnesia. A large number of these studies have focused on law enforcement officers involved in shootings. The effects of trauma on memory are an inability to remember a sequence of events or a recall of any information outside the perceived threat. The things that are well encoded during these events are details most important to survival, threat of harm (weapon focus), emotions and sensations. After experiencing critical incident amnesia, officers will not be able to write or give a detailed report of the incident. Research has shown that after one sleep cycle, officers memory increased by 50 percent. After two sleep cycles, officers memory increased to 90 percent.
It has been long been thought that the brains response is "fight or flight". The brains first response is to freeze then "fight or flight" if possible. The freeze mode is broken down into two categories, disassociation and tonic immobility. Disassociation is the brains way of protecting against overwhelming emotions and sensations. Victims may report, they felt like they were having a dream or watching a movie or they felt like they were standing in a corner watching. The purpose of tonic immobility is to preserve life. It is caused by a perceived inability to escape. Tonic immobility can last for minutes or hours. The victim may report, I was frozen, I tried to scream but I couldn't. A study of tonic immobility looked at serious traffic accidents, serious physical assault, sexual assault and a close call with death. The findings were 44 percent had significant immobility, 11 percent had extreme immobility. The greatest immobility was from sexual assault victims, 60 percent experienced tonic immobility.
The after-effects of trauma with victims can be dramatic. Victims can experience flashback, extreme mood changes, fear, hypervigilance, guilt, shame, shock, depression, suicidal thoughts, sleeplessness and physical pain.
Kelly concluded with saying the system needs to be a victim centered response. You need to express sympathy and understanding to a victim. Express thanks to victim for reporting the crime. You need to give victims time to collect their thoughts. You need to provide specific ways to help such as victim advocate information and domestic violence resources, such as women's shelters. Be aware that every action you take, you will make a difference. Kelly gave information on Start by Believing a public awareness campaign focused on the public response to sexual assault. For more information you can visit their website at startbybelieving.org.