Interviewing Victims

Experienced police officers say that interviewing victims can be one of the most stressful parts of the job. Victims bring a host of negative and sometimes overwhelming feelings to the interview: fear, rage, helplessness, confusion, and guilt. The officer, on the other hand, has a job to do – gathering information – and a limited time frame to work with. Follow the guidelines below to conduct a victim interview efficiently and effectively.

1. Acknowledge the victim’s feelings first. It’s understandable that an officer might want to get to the facts right away, bypassing the victim’s feelings. But this approach is likely to backfire: Feelings that are ignored don’t disappear – instead they’re likely to return with the volume turned up.

A businesslike tone that inspires confidence (“You’re safe now, Ma’am” or “I understand that you’ve been through a horrible experience”) builds trust and sets the stage for an effective interview.

2. Don’t blame the victim. Your job is to prosecute lawbreakers, not victims. Citizens sometimes complain that law enforcement makes them feel guilty about what happened to them: A rape victim has a nice figure and attractive clothes; a burglarized house had open windows; a car involved in an accident was exceeding the speed limit. Get the facts, but focus your attention on the offender’s wrongdoing.

3. Avoid excessive questioning. Cooperate with other personnel at the scene to ensure that victims aren’t asked to go over the same information repeatedly. Stifle your curiosity and stick only to relevant information.

4. Be fair and professional. It’s human nature to like some people better than others, to think in stereotypes, and to treat one person better (or worse) than another. And it’s human nature to let your biases affect your interactions with other people.

But professionals are expected to hold themselves to a higher standard of behavior. Avoid showing your disapproval of a victim’s lifestyle, values, or beliefs. Here are some situations that might challenge your professionalism:

-an African-American officer investigates a crime against a white citizen who displays Confederate flag in his home and on his car

-a middle-income officer interviews a single mother who’s living in a small, sparsely furnished, and untidy home

-an officer who belongs to a religion that opposes homosexuality interviews a lesbian who was assaulted by her partner

-a Jewish officer investigates a crime against a man who is outspokenly anti-Semitic

5. Examine your own attitudes towards laws and lawbreakers. Past experience can color your views of what does or does not constitute a crime, and those attitudes can cause an officer to adopt a dismissive attitude toward a victim’s concerns. Remember that you’re enforcing society’s laws, not your own values.

For example, an officer who grew up in a family of avid hunters may wonder why she’s asked to enforce wildlife protection laws. Someone whose parents had a violent relationship may not see the point of prosecuting a man who assaulted his wife.

It’s vital to be aware of how your past has shaped you and to make appropriate adjustments in your attitude when necessary. Law enforcement – as the name applies – is about laws, not your biases and opinions.

6. Educate yourself about community resources for victims, and offer information when appropriate. Experts say that victims can experience long-term damage to both their health and their relationships. Most communities offer services to help victims deal with injuries, emotions, and adjustment to everyday living. Make sure you have the information you need (booklets, fliers, phone numbers). Document any information you share with victims.

These guidelines, based on officers with long experience in talking to victims, can go a long way to enhancing your professionalism and the reputation your agency enjoys in your community. Review them often, and practice them whenever possible: The benefits are both significant and long lasting.

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