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The Importance of Being Responsive to Crime Victims

Besides the satisfaction of helping people through a highly traumatic period, demonstrating sensitivity can also elicit better cooperation, essential to your investigation.

October 01, 2000  |  by Arthur J. Lurigio, Ph.D., Mindy B. Mechanic, Ph.D.

This study did not specifically address the impact of police officer training on victim satisfaction with their interactions.  However, it is reasonable to speculate that training can play a pivotal role in fostering supportive police-victim interactions.

With funding form the National Institute of Justice, Lurigio and Rosenbaum studied whether police officers could be trained to be more responsive and sensitive to crime victims and whether such changes in police behaviors and attitudes could help crime victims cope better.

While police officers were still in the academy, they were randomly assigned to two groups: one received special training on victims and the other group (i.e., the control group) received training on a topic unrelated to victims.

To test the effects of training, both groups were asked a series of questions relating to victims and their interactions with police.  The specially trained group of recruits did very well.  Compared with the control group, the trained group of recruits did very well.  Compared with the control group, the trained group exhibited more knowledge about victims' psychological reactions and adjustment, and members of that group were more likely to believe that their roles should involve protecting victims' feelings at the crime scenes.

Trained recruits were also more likely to believe that patrol officers can make a difference in victims' psychological recovery.

Armed with greater knowledge and higher levels of sensitivity compared with their counterparts in the control group, these specially trained recruits were expected to go out into the field and apply, in their actual contacts with victims, what they learned in the academy.

Crime victims who had contact with trained officers and those who did not were interviewed.  Although the results of the interviews were not string in statistical terms, findings showed that the victims who had contact with trained officers were less inclined to (a) want to retaliate against their attackers, (b) be fearful of future victimizations, and (c) blame themselves for the incidents.

These were all signs of more positive recovery and suggested that the program worked.

More important than the immediate results of the study was what it taught us in general about police officers and crime victims.  Training for police officers is crucial.   Training topics should include interviewing techniques and skills to stabilize victims, and services that are responsive to victims' needs.

Training police on the effects of criminal victimization should be done in the academy for recruits and should also be given to more seasoned officers during in-service training or at roll-call sessions.  Training only recruits is a mistake.  If senior officers are less supportive of or enthusiastic about victim interventions, their actions in the field can undermine the gains made with recruits in the academy.

Ideally, sensitivity toward victims should become part of a department's overall philosophy and orientation and should be incorporated into routine police practices.  Patrol officers should be able to obtain services directly or to refer victims to services through the department's victims program, through the local prosecutor office's victims program, or through victim services agencies in the community.

Officers' responses:  Patrol officers should recognize that by modifying their behaviors even in small ways, they can make a big difference in the recovery of victims.  That is, patrol officers can become victim helpers without compromising their primary role identification as law enforcement officers.

In fact, greater sensitivity and courteousness toward the victim at the scene can result in better information about the crime and greater victim willingness to participate in the criminal justice process.

Officers must realize that many victims need to ventilate their feelings in the aftermath of crimes.  Officers should allow victims a few minutes to tell their stories and to express their emotions about the incidents.  At this stage, the best thing that officers can do is listen empathetically and give victims the time they need to cry, yell or sit quietly.

A few sensitive words of support and affirmation from officers, and reassurance that what victim are feeling and experiencing is "normal," can help many victims find their own way out of the initial shock of the experience.

Being crime victims leaves people feeling powerless of helpless and often leads to prolonged depression and anxiety.  Patrol officers can help restore a sense of control by dealing immediately with victims' material needs.  If there are broken windows or door locks, officers should be able to obtain resources to have property repaired as quickly  as possible after the incidents or help victims know what the next steps are in the processing of their cases.

Officers should help victims identify sources of support in the community, which could be as simple as handling victims a card with the names and phone numbers of victims programs or advocacy groups.  When victims have been injured in violent attacks, officers should assist them in receiving prompt medical attention.

Along similar lines, when victims are experiencing acute psychological reactions, officers should make sure that they receive immediate crisis counseling to reduce the likelihood of longer-term distress.

Police officers must avoid the temptation to blame or rebuke victims for the incidents.  It is natural for people to blame others for contributing to their misfortunes in an attempt to keep their own feelings of personal vulnerability at bay, or in an effort to retain a sense of being in control.  Nonetheless, all forms of victim-blaming, even very subtle ones, have been found to have a very negative impact on victims, especially sexual assault survivors.

Blame by police officers and others can delay recovery by making victims feel guilty, lowering their self-esteem, and weakening their sense of control.  Patrol officers who blame or criticize victims are discouraging them from cooperating.  Such responses might even discourage victims from calling the police in future or collaborating with the police in community policing and problem-solving initiatives.

It must be recognized that working with victims can and often does take a toll on those who are summoned to provide the help.  The secondary effects (also known as vicarious traumatization) of being exposed to high levels of violence and victimization occur among members of all professions who work with victims on a regular basis, including police, emergency services staff, medical emergency room personnel, counselors, therapists and victim advocates.  These reactions increase the likelihood of burnout and reduce empathy for victims.

Training on vicarious traumatization can be included in the police academy curriculum and in continuing education programs.  On a day-to-day level, talking to colleagues about stressful reactions (i.e., debriefing) has been found to reduce secondary trauma reactions among professionals.  It has been noted, however, that police officers seem reluctant to acknowledge that the high degree of violence and victimization they are exposed to on a daily basis actually has any impact on them personally.

Finally, traumatic stress symptoms (e.g., insomnia, intrusive memories and irritability) and distorted beliefs about people and the world (e.g., most people are bad, life is meaningless) are among the many ways in which vicarious trauma reactions can manifest themselves.  Nonetheless, high levels of exposure to violence can desensitize a person such that only increasingly heinous forms of violence are acknowledged or recognized on a personal or professional level.  An increased threshold for recognizing the severity or impact of criminal victimization can result in responses to victims that fail to acknowledge the adverse impact of their experiences.

In summary, patrol officers' responses can be critical in lessening the severity of victims' stress, improving victims' prospects for recovery, and increasing their willingness to cooperate in the criminal justice system.  The attitudes and behaviors of officers can positively influence victims' interpretations of their experiences and can facilitate the coping process.

Hence, basic and advanced officer training on the effects of criminal victimization and the process of victim adjustment will prepare police officers to help victims deal with their trauma more effectively and to elicit better victim cooperation in the aftermath of the incident.

Arthur J. Lurigio, Ph.D. a psychologist, is a professor of criminal justice and a member of the Graduate Faculty at Loyola University, where he received tenure in 1993.  He is also chairperson of the Department of Criminal Justice, Director of the Center for the Advancement of Research, Training, and Education (CARTE) at Loyola.

Mindy B. Mechanic is an assistant research professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.  She received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology, with a minor in law at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign in 1996.

This is their first contribution to POLICE.

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