Sexual assault victims have historically been treated poorly by the criminal justice system, often enduring doubt from practitioners when reporting victimization to law enforcement. These adverse responses re-victimize survivors and cause distrust in law enforcement, in addition to further trauma, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, and negative mental and physical health consequences.

This has been attributed, in part, to the intrusive nature of sexual assault investigations, particularly when victims are not treated with compassion.

Moreover, studies have shown that some practitioners adhere to “rape myths,” or preconceived definitions of “real” sexual assaults, in which the offender used force and evidence that the victim resisted (e.g., bruises, scrapes) exists. When this definition is not met, police and prosecutors have been found to question victim credibility. In the sexual assault literature, victim credibility has been one of several critical factors associated with case attrition.

Case attrition in sexual assaults has been attributed to practitioner assessments of “convictability,” (Frohmann, 1997, p.532) or the chance a case will result in conviction by jury. Frohmann described this phenomenon as the “downstream orientation” (p. 535) of justice, which suggests that criminal justice practitioners make decisions based on factors that become pertinent as cases progress through the criminal justice system. “Rape victim advocates described police and medical systems as wielding incredible power to re-victimize rape victims.” Shana Maier in Violence Against Women (2008). 

Consonant with the downstream orientation of justice, my research and others have identified several victim characteristics (e.g., victim behavior, victim moral character), suspect traits (e.g., history of arrest), and case facts (e.g., offense severity, presence of evidence) known to impact convictability assessments. Combined, these characteristics shape victim credibility evaluations, which research has shown to be the most critical component of decisions made by practitioners in sexual assault cases.

STUDYING POLICE DECISION-MAKING

Most victim credibility scholarship has focused on prosecutorial decisions and some scholars have pointed out that studies on police decisions are sparse in the literature. The scarcity of research on police decisions is problematic, as extant literature has indicated that police make early evaluations of victim credibility that may permeate decisions made throughout the criminal justice process. TBR7: Victimization
Monday: Bostaph’s intro
Monday: King & Bostaph, et al. on Idaho victim services
Tuesday: Fisher on sexual violence on campus
Wednesday: Miller on theory of change
Thursday: Cares crime victims’ classroom needs
Friday: Franklin on the victim-offender connection
Friday: Campbell on police and victims of sexual violence

Specifically, the police are tasked with gathering sufficient evidence and interviewing suspects and victims prior to moving cases forward to the prosecution stage. Moreover, the police are responsible for initial credibility evaluations during the earliest stage of case processing. It follows that police assessments of credibility have an impact on perceptions of convictability and outcomes in cases of sexual violence.

Recently, police decision-making in sexual assault cases has garnered more attention from policing researchers. Scholars have rejuvenated a body of research examining arrest decisions and found that aspects of victim credibility are connected to police decisions. What had been missing from the literature was a qualitative study that allowed the police to explain in their own words how credibility is evaluated, and the multiplicity of factors that are faced by law enforcement when deciding to move cases forward to prosecutors.

More about the Houston Police victim credibility study

This project was supported by Award No. NIJ-2011-2808, awarded by the National Institute of Justice. William Wells from Sam Houston State University was the lead research partner on the project and the Houston Police Department Crime Laboratory was the recipient of the award. Views in this article are the author’s own and do not represent the official position or policies of the National Institute of Justice or the Houston Police Department. More information can be found on the project website at http://houstonsakresearch.org/.

To address this gap, the recent study I published with Tasha A. Menaker, Forensic Nurse Examiner Coordinator at the Arizona Coalition to End Sexual & Domestic Violence, and William R. King, Associate Dean of Research and Development at Sam Houston State University College of Criminal Justice, examined how investigators establish victim credibility by analyzing interview data from 44 sexual assault investigators in the Houston Police Department. The study focused on how investigators determine victim credibility and the role of victim credibility in their downstream decisions to present a “strong” case to the district attorney.

Results indicated that sexual assault investigators consider a multiplicity of factors when determining victim credibility. It appeared that these evaluations were made with a “downstream” focus, guided by perceptions of case characteristics that become important to prosecutors during the charging stage. When forming credibility assessments, investigators indicated that it was imperative to understand the case characteristics that impact decisions made by prosecutors. Investigators discussed several victim and case characteristics that affected credibility judgements and indicated that decisions to present a “strong” case to the DA were contingent on finding victim allegations to be credible.

CONSIDERING VICTIM CHARACTERISTICS

SELECTED REFERENCES

Campbell, R (2012, December 3). The neurobiology of sexual assault: Implications for first responders in law enforcement, prosecution, and victim advocacy. National Institute of Justice Research for the Real World Seminar.

Frohmann, L. (1991). Discrediting victims’ allegations of sexual assault: Prosecutorial accounts of case rejections. Social Problems, 38, 213-226.

Frohmann, L. (1997). Convictability and discordant locales: Reproducing race, class, and gender ideologies in prosecutorial decision-making. Law and Society Review, 31, 531-555.

Maier, S. L. (2008). “I Have Heard Horrible Stories…” Rape Victim Advocates’ Perceptions of the Revictimization of Rape Victims by the Police and Medical System. Violence against women, 14(7), 786-808. doi: 10.1177/1077801208320245

Spohn, C., Beichner, D., & Davis-Frenzel, E. (2001). Prosecutorial justifications for sexual assault case rejection: Guarding the “Gateway to Justice.” Social Problems, 48, 206-235. doi: 10.1525/sp.2001.48.2.206

Spohn, C., & Tellis, K. (2014). Policing and prosecuting sexual assault: Inside the criminal justice system. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc.

Tasca, M., Rodriguez, N., Spohn, C., & Koss, M. P. (2013). Police decision making in sexual assault cases: Predictors of suspect identification and arrest. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 28, 1157-1177. doi: 10.1177/0886260512468233

Ullman, S. E., & Filipas, H. H. (2001). Predictors of PTSD symptom severity and social reactions in sexual assault victims. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 14, 369-389. doi:10.1023/A:1011125220522

Victim characteristics typically represent extralegal variables, or variables that investigators are not legally required to consider. These victim attributes include victim consistency in reporting of details during multiple stages of the justice process, victim moral character (e.g., arrest history, sexual history), engagement in risk-taking behavior (e.g., voluntary intoxication), and a history of mental illness. Conversely, case characteristics refer to legally relevant variables investigators are required by law to take into account when making decisions. Case characteristics incorporate mainly evidentiary factors such as the presence of evidence corroborating victim allegations and the severity of the sexual assault.

Findings from the study showed that investigators indeed preferred physical evidence that substantiated reports of victimization, but noted that this evidence is often unavailable during the investigative process. In its absence, investigators suggested that they had little to go on other than appraisals of the victims’ credibility. Results indicated that in the absence of physical evidence, investigators’ most common concern with victim credibility was the consistency of victim statements.

Specifically, investigators focused on consistency between descriptions of the incident documented by patrol officers in incident reports, medical professionals in forensic examinations, and statements made to sexual assault investigators. Similar to prior prosecutorial research from Lisa Frohmann, responses indicated that the veracity of victim allegations was questioned when statement details varied across the reporting process.

Investigators also indicated that victims’ moral character, particularly a criminal history, damaged victim credibility in that investigators believed a history of multiple convictions was indicative of the complainant’s character.

In regard to engagement in risk-taking behaviors, investigators indicated victims who voluntarily consumed alcohol prior to victimization were perceived to be less credible because their intoxication hindered the victim’s ability to recall details of the event, particularly whether he or she consented to the sexual act. Finally, the investigators suggested that the level of detail when reporting victimization was a critical component to be considered when establishing the credibility of victims. In line with this finding, investigators indicated that “true” or credible victims would cooperate with the investigation and were forthcoming with all of the facts about the case, and were able to provide detailed accounts of the incident.

PERCEPTIONS OF “TRUE” VICTIMS

These findings are supportive of the larger body of literature, which has demonstrated that practitioner decisions in sexual assault cases are based on perceptions of “true” victims. The results from the study suggest that investigators believed physical evidence to be the most important evidentiary factor to move cases forward, but when this evidence is unavailable, case outcomes often hinge on the assessment of victim allegations as credible. These results are problematic in light of findings from neurobiological research that demonstrate responses to trauma impact affect (i.e., mood, fearfulness, lack of emotion) and hinder victims’ ability to accurately recall victimization and the details surrounding it.

To be sure, the disclosure of victimization to multiple criminal justice practitioners has increased the chances that victims will experience post-traumatic stress symptoms, which can also hinder victims’ capacity to recall details of victimization. Victims of sexual assault who have endured negative experiences with practitioners, such as insensitivity, blame and disbelief, have been more likely to suffer from more severe post-traumatic stress symptoms.

These negative responses contribute to perceptions that the criminal justice system is ineffective and reduces the chances that victims will report further victimization to the police, cooperate with investigators, or seek social support. It follows that practitioners who are likely to come into contact with sexual assault victims should be trained. This training should educate practitioners about traumatic stress responses among victims. The training would provide a more informed understanding of victim behaviors in the post-victimization period and would allow for investigative strategies to be adapted to be more compassionate toward sexual assault victims. For example, Rebecca Campbell, in a 2012 talk at the National Institute of Justice, found that in interviews with sexual assault victims, it is critical that the investigators acknowledge victims’ trauma and treat them with sensitivity.

Additionally, research has pinpointed strategies that enhance accurate recall of details surrounding traumatic events, such as discussing sensory experiences (e.g., thoughts, smells, emotional reactions) that occurred during the assault. These strategies can stimulate victims’ memories and allow them to process the trauma, while decreasing the likelihood of re-victimization and post-traumatic stress. Implementing this training provides an opportunity for law enforcement to overcome some of the barriers known to enhance case attrition in sexual assault cases. Specifically, exposing investigators to this training may reduce the investigative focus on victim credibility and increase the likelihood a case will be presented to prosecutors for charging decisions.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.