Iowa school creates interview room for sex assault victims

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IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — University of Iowa officials are hoping a new "soft space" interview room will make it easier for victims of sexual assault and other trauma to report crimes to the police.

The new room, which officially opened on Nov. 20, has been remodeled to include more welcoming features like carpeting, soft lighting, blank journals, and soft rocking chairs. By making the changes, UI police are trying to make the interview process less of an interrogation and more of a conversation with victims.

"We're always trying to improve the relationship between survivors and law enforcement," said Dave Visin, the interim director of the University of Iowa Department of Public Safety.

On the wall, the room also includes the phrase "Start by Believing," which is the slogan for a public awareness campaign aimed at changing the way communities respond to sexual assault.

Visin gave the example of someone who has had their camera stolen — a police interview with that victim would start from the assumption that they are telling the truth about the camera. A sexual assault case should be no different.

"From the moment that the survivor walks into that soft interview space they know they're going to be supported, they're going to be heard," said Jennifer Carlson, the executive director of the university's Rape Victim Advocacy Program. Carlson and RVAP originally brought the idea for the soft space to the school's public safety department, who were very supportive, she said.

And, Visin said, the room has already been put to use. Carlson said she's heard positive feedback from one officer after an interview with a crime victim who fidgeted with items such as stress balls and pipe cleaners.

"He could see the anxiety and the stress that this person was feeling through the way they were using the items," she said, explaining that research has shown that the brain processes emotions and memories differently when they're related to trauma.

The Iowa City Press-Citizen ( ) reports that officers also take that into account when interviewing victims of traumatic crimes such as rape, Visin said. All UIPD officers have had "extensive training in dealing with victims of trauma" he said, which means that the tactics they use in an interview might be different from other crimes. For instance, instead of asking too many direct questions right away, they might let the victim simply talk and piece the event together before following up.

Visin stressed that this "trauma-informed response" is based on scientific research as well as recommendations from victim advocacy groups like RVAP. If officers can get all the information they need through one interview, they might not need to conduct follow-up interviews that might re-traumatize the victim, Visin said.

"Making the interview less stressful builds trust between the crime victim and the police and the system in general," said Tom Rocklin, school vice president for student life.

Rocklin said the space is just one piece of the university's larger strategy for dealing with sexual assault.

"We work to prevent sexual assault, we work to support survivors and we work to hold perpetrators responsible," he said, describing the school's three goals. The soft space helps to support survivors and to give law enforcement the information they need to track down perpetrators, he said.

Since the beginning of 2015 university has had 19 reports of sexual assault, including 10 that were determined to be instances of forcible fondling, six instances of forcible rape and one instance of forcible sodomy, Visin said.

The university has also offered to let other area law enforcement agencies use the room, Visin said, and he thinks the space's features will make it useful not just for interviews with survivors of sexual assault, but for victims of other traumas as well.

"I think any time we have a crime victim that has experienced trauma we would use it," he said.


Information from: Iowa City Press-Citizen,

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