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WVC police set new protocol for treating sexual assault victims

By Pat Reavy | Posted - Jun. 25, 2014 at 8:03 p.m.


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WEST VALLEY CITY — "You have to understand to be understood."

West Valley Police Chief Lee Russo said that's the idea behind a new approach by his department on how to investigate, interview and interact with victims of sexual assault.

For all of their careers, Russo said police detectives have been taught that when they arrive at a crime scene, they need to interview a victim or witness to find out all the facts that they can.

That approach, however, isn't taking the victim's psyche into account or the trauma they've just been through, Russo said.

"We've had all sorts of preconceptions of what rape is and rape myths and so forth, and having a difficult time prosecuting those and investigating those," said West Valley police detective Justin Boardman, an investigator with the Special Victims Unit. "Officers have been trained throughout their careers to see things differently."

The department now believes that both police and prosecutors will be able to collect better evidence and get better results in court "by placing the victim first, and remembering everything that we do is about the victim," Russo said.

In January, the West Valley Police Department partnered with a researcher at Brigham Young University as part of a study to implement a new protocol to treat sexual assault victims as trauma victims.

Recognizing the mental trauma a person is experiencing can now be used as evidence of sexual assault, even if the victim can't remember all the details of the event.

Donna Kelly, a prosecutor with the Utah Prosecution Council, said West Valley City's new training will "revolutionize the way sexual assault cases are handled."


We've had all sorts of preconceptions of what rape is and rape myths and so forth, and having a difficult time prosecuting those and investigating those. Officers have been trained throughout their careers to see things differently.

–West Valley police detective Justin Boardman


"Previously, we discounted a lot of things sexual assault victims were telling us because we didn't understand why they had gaps in their memory, why they couldn't remember key details. Now we now that those things are a natural result of trauma," she said.

"Trauma can impact you on any different way. Understanding how the body reacts to trauma and how the psyche responds to it helps us in working with a victim or witness so that we can assist them in piecing it back together in a way that is natural for the body," Russo added.

By recognizing that trauma may be affecting the way a victim remembers an event, the chief said, investigators are now getting lessons on how the brain works and being taught that it isn't necessary to collect every bit of information right away.

"It teaches officers what to look for to understand how this trauma event impacts them. And then gives them the understanding of when to interview somebody, sleep cycles, the type of environment that makes the interview more productive. By doing all of that, we hope to make the victim more comfortable and more successful in recalling the entire event," he said.

Russo admitted there's a balancing act between collecting vital information right away to make sure a criminal isn't on the loose and waiting to get what will likely be better and more accurate information later.

"We not only want to catch a criminal, but support a victim or a witness," he said.

The chief believes West Valley City is the first department in the country to try such an approach with sex assault cases. If the study with BYU ultimately shows an increase in prosecution rates, Russo said he would like the new approach to extend to victims in all trauma cases.

On Wednesday, Russo received the Visionary Award at the Justice for Crime Victims Conference in Sandy for his department's work in improving how sexual assault cases are investigated.

The department, he said, is also partnering with the Utah State Crime Lab to give investigators in the forensics unit more training.

Contributing: Sandra Yi

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