Special Victims Unit: Memory plays key role in sexual assault cases
May 23, 2012
FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. -- In order to help sexual assault victims and hold offenders accountable, there must be an understanding of the factors involved during a sexual assault, as well as what constitutes the act. Sexual assault cases are lost many times because people do not understand the actions of the victim.
Victims do not act as society expects them to act when faced with a sexual assault, which is why 30 CID Special Agents and Staff Judge Advocate personnel attended the advanced sexual assault investigation training course held by the Family Advocacy Law Enforcement Training Division May 14 to 25 at the U.S. Army Military Police School.
In 2009, Russell Strand, USAMPS FALETD chief, and other national experts developed and implemented the two-week Special Victims Unit Investigations Course to train all agents who specialize in these extremely difficult and complex investigations.
Special Agent Lori Jones, SVU, 78th Military Police Detachment, Criminal Investigation Division, helps teach the SVU course and said that internationally, this is the best course there is.
"Our agents are front running in this arena. We are changing the way we investigate sex crimes. It's a complete paradigm shift," Jones said. "The Army is putting its stamp on sex assault investigations."
According to those who teach this class, Strand, Jones and Highly Qualified Expert Special Investigator David Markel, Sexual Assault Investigations, said it takes a minimum of two weeks of training to affect culture change.
"This is going to challenge you. This is going to challenge some of your biases. It's going to challenge some of your societal perceptions. We all have them," Jones told the class. "It's okay to voice those issues, it's ok to discuss that."
During the first week, agents and prosecutors were given statistical information on sexual assaults, the legal challenges of prosecuting sexual assault cases, the Department of Defense sexual assault response policy and sexual assault injuries as well as scientific studies based on the actions of victims and sex offenders.
On day two, students learned about alcohol-facilitated sexual assaults, which was repeated daily during the training.
"The number one, most common drug used to facilitate sexual assault, is ethanol, commonly referred to as alcohol," Jones told the class. "(Alcohol) is socially acceptable, it's legal in most areas … the last time I checked for drug-facilitated sexual assault, there were over 300 different drugs that have been identified and of the 300, most of those are over-the-counter and alcohol usually helps with the affects, but alcohol is what is mostly used by sex offenders."
Jones told the class the most developed portion of the brain is affected at a lower Blood Alcohol Content. After only one alcoholic beverage, the cognitive brain starts to shut down -- the part of the brain that affects memory.
"When victims are sexually assaulted, and we (CID agents) start asking them questions in a cognitive format; what is going to happen?" Jones asked. "They aren't going to give it to you because they aren't going to have it. We have to know how to ask the right questions."
The number one lesson taught to personnel attending this course in regards to ethanol facilitated sexual assaults was that consent has to be given at the time of the act, and someone who is incapacitated due to alcohol cannot give consent.
During the latter part of the week, Strand educated the class on how trauma affects a victim's memory. Strand told the class there were many types of memory, but most of the time as investigators, the focus is on semantic and long-term memory, when some of the others types of memory are more accurate when dealing with a sexual assault victim.
According to experts, the part of the brain that is active during a trauma is the amygdala, which is linked to fear responses. When the prefrontal cortex -- higher functioning part of the brain -- begins to "shut down" during an assault, the brain releases a stress hormone known as noradrenaline that affects the amygdala by controlling chemical and electrical pathways in the brain responsible for memory formation.
Research has concluded that during any type of trauma, neurotransmitters in the brain set off the release of a series of chemicals, which consist of several narcotic-type substances that are infused into the body at a high rate, including norepinephrine and dopamine.
With these narcotics infused into a victim's body, and most parts of the brain "shutting down," "why do we expect victims to have a narrative right away; why do we expect victims to be able to record everything and be able to tell us everything?" Strand asked. "Our expectation is that the victim can give us all of that when more often than not, the victim is the least able to do that, which is why understanding the science of this is so important."
Strand told students that memory is a coping skill and trauma overwhelms people's coping skills and causes traumatic amnesia and dissociation or tonic immobility.
Tonic immobility is characterized by pronounced verbal immobility, trembling, muscular rigidity, and sensations of cold and numbness.
Strand said many cases have been lost due to the lack of understanding of tonic immobility. "The victim didn't scream, the victim didn't shout, the victim didn't do anything, they just laid there, so obviously (the offender) thought it was consensual."
Tonic immobility has a lasting effect on victims, male and female, who have feelings of guilt and shame because they couldn't do anything to prevent the assault. The lasting affects of trauma that occur in victims who are sexually assaulted can cause post-traumatic stress disorder.
Victims who are sexually assaulted often have a higher chance of developing PTSD than individuals who have been to combat. Women are five times more likely to develop PTSD from a sexual assault than from combat, and men are six times more likely to develop PTSD from a sexual assault than from combat.
"Trauma is life-changing," Strand said.