Rape Response 101: Police in Illinois to Undergo New Training
By Annie Sweeney
From the start, the 28-year-old woman sensed doubt.
Inside her North Side apartment, still unsteady and terrified, she explained to a Chicago police officer that she had just been repeatedly sexually assaulted by her former boyfriend. The tone of his questions, she remembers thinking, seemed troubling.
"You were together nine years," she recalled officers repeatedly asking during the 2016 interview, "and you are reporting a rape?"
"Right then and there, I knew what I was up against," the woman recalled recently to the Tribune. "I could easily see how someone wouldn't speak up."
Advocates and law enforcement officials say such fear and doubt about how their allegations will be investigated has long deterred sexual assault victims from coming forward. As few as 1 in 5 rapes are reported, they say.
In an attempt to close that gap, a little-known change in Illinois state law is trying to improve how police respond to victims of rape, mandating police officers across the state undergo new training that not only emphasizes the need for sensitivity to the difficult cases but also teaches the science behind how a brain reacts to trauma.
The law also requires that police must take a report for every allegation of rape -- no matter how long ago it might have occurred or what jurisdiction it occurred in.
For Chicago police, the new training is already underway for recruits and will begin soon for detectives. Officers who investigate sex crimes should receive the training over the next two years. The state training board has held three statewide trainings for other departments as well.
The training is considered critical for the Chicago department, slammed last year by a U.S. Department of Justice investigation for its inadequate preparation of officers -- namely that internal investigators fail to interact with rape victims in a manner "that encourages their participation in the investigation."
Chicago police did not respond to requests for comment on the 28-year-old woman's allegations about how officers treated her.
But in a statement the department said it recognized the need to improve interactions with victims and that this is what the training tries to achieve.
"Survivors of criminal sexual assault and sexual violence deserve to be treated with respect and dignity as they pursue justice and attempt to seek some level of closure," a statement read. "The goal of these classes is to provide police officers with the most up to date understanding of the impact sexual assault has on survivors to minimize any additional trauma associated with the investigatory and prosecutorial process."
The law's new reporting requirements took effect in 2017, but its impact on rape investigations is hard to measure just yet. Still, citing the #MeToo movement, the law's proponents say it couldn't have come at a more propitious moment.
"We are not asking police officers to be social workers," said Polly Poskin, executive director of the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault. "We are asking police officers to be good investigators -- which is 'Tell me more.'"
National conversation and reporting spikes
Reports of criminal sexual assaults have been increasing in Chicago over the past five years, up from 1,401 in 2013 to 1,738 in 2017.
No one is certain whether the new reporting law is having an impact on the number of reports taken by the Chicago police. But advocates say there is no doubt increased conversation on the issue has led to more calls for help over the past few years.
"Definitely having this in the news is a trigger (to ask for help)," said Anacany Barrera, the coordinator of crisis lines and volunteer services at the YWCA Metropolitan Chicago. "The more our culture says there is actually going to be consequences to these actions, the more people are ready to talk to law enforcement."
Victims have been held back, advocates say, because of failures at just about every step of the reporting process. The first officers who respond often don't take reports, and detectives sometimes don't know how to build strong cases. When they do seek charges, prosecutors often decline the request, victim advocates say.
Part of the problem, advocates say, is that law enforcement officers haven't been trained in how victims of sexual assault react to the trauma. Research shows that the brain's responses affect memory in a way that may prompt investigators to doubt, dismiss or repeatedly question victims. That could inflict more harm, and ultimately contribute to fewer cases being charged, experts say.
In an interview with the Tribune, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who led the effort for the new law, took aim at how the justice system has responded to victims who come forward.
"Twenty percent of women will experience an assault or an attempted (assault)," Madigan said. "Yet almost no one reports sexual assault to law enforcement because everyone knows you are more likely to be re-vicitmized than receive justice."
Among the changes in the law is that victims now have five years from the date evidence was collected or, if the incident occurred when they were a juvenile, five years from their 18th birthday, to tell police they want their rape kit tested. Under the previous law, victims had 14 days to make this decision.
Another notable change is that officers are also required now to take a report of alleged assault from every victim who comes forward -- even if the general 10-year statute of limitations on charging the case has passed.
That change, advocates said, recognizes the fact that many rapists are repeat offenders. Gathering evidence could help identify potential assailants, even if charges in an individual case can't be pursued.
"We heard time after time people would go to the police and want to file a report because they were sexually assaulted (and) they were told to go think about it. They were being blamed for what had happened," Madigan said. "So we said: You have to mandate the taking of a report."
Critical is what advocates say is a long overdue re-education of law enforcement across the state on how to investigate the cases with more sensitivity. That training has begun in earnest at Chicago's academy on the city's Near West Side.
Training focuses on understanding trauma
On a recent Monday morning in a lecture room at the Chicago police training academy, Detective Bryan Barlow watched as 100 or so police recruits in uniform filed into the classroom for the start of the newly mandated six-hour Sexual Assault Investigations course.
"This is a new thing in the world of law enforcement," Barlow told the group at the start. "Why do we need to understand trauma? So we can understand trauma victims."
Barlow began teaching the new curriculum, which he wrote, to recruits last July and is developing a longer two-day course for detectives. The 10-year-veteran detective worked off directives from the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board, which trains and certifies officers across the state.
Barlow started with statistics -- 1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men experience rape or attempted rape, he told the recruits, as many took notes. An overwhelming 75 percent of victims know their attackers. Yet many rapes go unreported, Barlow told the class. Victims fear they won't be believed, or they feel shame, are related to or intimidated by their attacker, have a criminal record or were intoxicated at the time of the assault.
Barlow debunked myths about rape, such as that offenders are driven by sexual gratification. Assaults are about power, he told the group. Or that victims did something to cause the attack -- wear certain clothing, drank too much or wound up some place unsafe.
"Doesn't matter," Barlow told the group.
Then Barlow knocked down one of the biggest myths -- that victims make up allegations. In reality, between 2 and 8 percent of reported rapes are false, roughly in line with any other major crime, he said.
The question remained, though, why so few rapes are reported or when they are, why investigators fail to believe victims and the courts fail to build cases. For this, Barlow turned to science.
Trauma and the brain
An image of the brain flashed on the screen overhead as Barlow headed into the third hour of training. Research has shown that when a victim is traumatized, the brain itself is impacted, affecting memory, behavior and thinking, Barlow told the class.
Much of what Barlow would teach next has been developed from wider research on stress and trauma, and applied to sexual assault investigations over the past two decades. Jim Hopper, a teaching associate at Harvard Medical School, teaches widely on the subject, and explained in an interview what that research has found.
When the brain's "defense circuitry" detects an attack, it instantly stops all body movement so it can assess danger and the possibility for escape. These are automatic, involuntary reactions -- like what police and soldiers experience when under attack, Hopper explained.
At the same time, stress chemicals surge to the part of the brain that controls rational thought, often leaving victims to rely instead on habits and reflexes. The way a combat soldier will rely on training to navigate a firefight, a sexual assault victim might fall back on habits developed over years to survive an attack -- such as passive resistance. In extreme cases, a victim may even become paralyzed or pass out, Hopper said. This explains why some victims don't fight back, and shouldn't be expected to.
Meanwhile, the brain's "defense circuitry" focuses more attention on some parts of the attack than others, burning parts of it into memory while not recording others. This is why victims of a sexual assault, similar to soldiers in combat, often remember an attack in fragments, and frequently out of order.
Back in the training class, Barlow acknowledged that the memory problems sexual assault victims face can conflict with what young officers are typically taught about taking reports -- including to watch for inconsistencies.
"We want to put together a timeline," he said. "(Trauma victims) can't tell you a coherent story. They can't tell you this is what happened at Point A. This is what happened at Point B. ... They may leave out B and tell several weeks later. They may tell you about this terrible tale like they're talking about the kind of cereal they had this morning. Or they might ... not be able to get a word out without going into hysterics."
"That's trauma. ... Once you understand how a victim's brain works, a lot of this behavior that we used to think was indicative of deception makes a lot of sense."
Barlow instructed that during their first interviews with victims, officers should "start by believing." Don't ask for a chronological accounting, he said, but listen to whatever details they provide. If they need a break, don't push.
"I can't emphasize enough how much of a role that we as police officers have in this," he said, then paused. "It's vital. ... When you get one of these (cases), slow down. Slow the hell down."
Barlow also told the group several times to keep in mind that the person who is likely to feel the most doubt as they work to piece it all together is the victim.
An alleged victim's experience
That was the case with the 28-year-old woman who told the Tribune about the attacks she said her former boyfriend committed. Four hours of difficult questioning from police in 2016, she said, left her initially doubting her own recollections, even whether she had actually been raped.
"There was a lot of 'Why didn't you ... '," the woman recalled.
The detective's report cited insufficient evidence, lack of injury and that "she made statements agreeing to the sex acts." Ultimately, prosecutors declined to charge the case. The woman remains adamant the sex acts were not consensual, and the detective's reports do not reflect what happened.
After law enforcement wouldn't pursue the criminal case, the woman sought and was granted a civil no-contact order against her former boyfriend by a Cook County domestic violence court judge. In granting the civil no-contact order, the judge agreed that it was nonconsensual sex.
Talking about her experience is still painful today. While she says she understands how hard detectives work, she still feels they unfairly dismissed her.
"It made me feel so small," she said. "So insignificant."
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