Communicating With Law Enforcement
When you’re talking with law enforcement, it can be helpful to know what to expect and to understand their process. You may only interact with law enforcement when you report, or they might ask you to stay involved with the investigation over a length of time.
What can I expect?
A great deal of effort has gone into training law enforcement to create and operate survivor-centered process. Knowing what to expect and when to raise your hand can help you feel more in comfortable and in control.
- You should have privacy. When you discuss what happened to you with law enforcement, it should happen in quiet area away from others. If you feel that the situation is too public, ask to be relocated to a more private space.
- It may take a while. When you first report, the process may take a few hours. This is normal. Additional interviews with law enforcement may last a while as well, and they may occur over an extended period of time.
- You can take a break. If you need water, a snack, or just a minute to breathe, you can ask for a break. Law enforcement should accommodate these requests.
- You can go up the chain. If you feel that your complaint isn’t being taken seriously or if you feel uncomfortable, you can ask to speak to a supervisor or the next-highest ranking officer.
- Some questions may feel uncomfortable. Because of the nature of sexual assault, some questions can feel uncomfortable or intrusive. Use whatever terms or phrases make you most comfortable. It can help to remember that law enforcement officers are professionals, just like doctors and teachers, and are prepared to listen to what happened.
- You may hear the same question more than once. Law enforcement may ask the same questions several times or several different ways. It’s not because they don’t trust you—after a trauma it can be difficult to describe the details. Repeating a question or asking in a different way may prompt you to remember something you forgot the first time.
- You can have support. It can be helpful and comforting to have support when communicating with law enforcement.
- A trained advocate. When you call the National Sexual Assault Hotline, the sexual assault service provider in your area may be able to connect you with an advocate who is trained to support you while you talk to law enforcement. Some law enforcement agencies also have trained advocates available.
- Someone you trust. If you want a family member, friend, or partner to be present, you can have that too. Be aware that family or friends who are present when you speak with law enforcement may be called as witnesses if the case goes to trial. If the officer asks to speak with you privately, understand it’s likely to help you feel comfortable disclosing information that may feel private or sensitive. You can refuse this request.
What should I know about law enforcement’s process?
You may be asked to speak with law enforcement several times throughout an investigation. Some questions can seem personal, invasive, or simply annoying. You may feel more comfortable if you understand the goals behind law enforcement’s process.
- Proving lack of consent is a priority.The majority of sexual assaults are committed by someone known to the victim. Because of this, the difficulty in prosecuting is rarely about identifying a suspect—it’s about proving a lack of consent.
- They are trying to counter the defense. Law enforcement officers are trained to anticipate common defenses used by perpetrators in sexual assault cases. According to the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), “the following are four common sexual assault defenses and strategies to counter these defenses in the written case.
- Denial: Collect and document evidence to establish that (nonconsensual) sexual contact did occur.
- Identity: Collect and preserve DNA samples from the victim and suspect, and other physical evidence from the crime scene(s); document witness statements.
- Consent: Document fear, force, threat, coercion and/or inability to consent. Impeachment by Contradiction: Document any changes in victim/witness statements, especially as additional details are recalled following the initial trauma/shock of the assault.”
- They've been trained on the impact of trauma. Law enforcement officers are trained not to label a false report based on an initial interview, a victim’s response to the trauma, a statement that was taken back or recanted, or refusal to press charges. They understand that trauma can impact how a victim behaves, and may schedule follow-up interviews to help break up the process and confirm details. Furthermore, they know that perpetrators sometimes target a person who they think will be an “unreliable witness.”
What goes into the report?
When law enforcement files a report, it includes the case tracking number and a written narrative based on the interview(s) with the victim. According to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, some aspects of the report will include1:
- Description of the assault: details about what occurred; sensory experiences, such as what the victim saw, smelled, tasted, heard or felt at the during the assault; the victim’s exact words or phrases, quoted directly; details of voluntary alcohol or drug use that demonstrate why this is an issue of increased vulnerability rather than culpability.
- Signs of premeditation: any interactions that might indicate premeditation or grooming behavior by the perpetrator.
- Indication of force: coercion, threats, and/or force and the victim’s response during and after; signs of fear including fight, flight, or freeze reactions from the victim.
- Lack of consent: what “No” looked or felt like for the individual victim— noting that silence is not consent and “no” or resistance is communicated through more than just words; any details that show how a consensual encounter turned nonconsensual.
- Timeline and victim response: a timeline to show trauma behavior in context of previous behavior, such as weight loss or gain, changes in routine; documentation of the victim’s condition as observed.
- Importance of DNA in Sexual Assault Cases
- Reporting to Law Enforcement
- What to Expect from the Criminal Justice System