On the average, more than 40 million criminal victimizations and attempted victimizations take place each year in the United States.
The costs and consequences of crime can be measured in different ways. When measured in dollar amounts, for example, crime costs more than 100 billion dollars annually for lost property, medical bills, and work absenteeism. These costs are tangible measures of the heavy toll that crime exacts on our country's residents.
Victims' psychological or emotional suffering is another cost of crime, less easily understood and measured, but no less important.
Effects of Victimization
Typical Victim Reasons:
Victims of serious crime can have powerful emotional reactions. Clinicians and researchers first began to study these responses among sexual assault victims. Many case studies conducted in the early 1970s showed that rape victims were deeply traumatized by the crimes. Their reactions included severe anxiety, suicidal thoughts, depression, and sexual dysfunction that typically persisted for months and even years following the crimes.
More scientifically valid research has confirmed what the case studies report: Rape victims suffer for long periods of time after the attacks, and the victimization experience affects their emotional and physical health as well as their relationships with spouses, friends, and family members-often for the rest of their lives.
The first author of this article and Dr. Dennis Rosenbaum of the State University of New York at Albany, hypothesized that victims or serious crimes other than sexual assault, such as burglary or robbery, also suffer from psychological consequences. Specifically, Lurigio and Rosenbaum argued that the reactions of rape victims and victims of other serious crimes might be different in their intensity, but not in their basic nature.
To test this idea, we studied the reactions of robbery, burglary, and nonsexual assault victims and compared victims' psychological adjustment with that of a sample of people who lived in the same areas of a large Midwestern city but who had not been victimized.
We found that significantly greater percentages of crime victims, when compared with nonvictims, reported painful emotional and physical symptoms. Victims were more fearful of crime, less likely to go out at night, and more likely to report that they were unhappy living in their neighborhoods. It was especially interesting to find that victims had apparently changed their basic perceptions of themselves and of the world.
The victims in the study felt quite vulnerable, not only to future crimes but also to other adverse life events (i.e., medical problems and accidents).
Numerous other studies have also found that burglary, robbery and nonsexual assault victims experience psychological reactions that can persist for years after the victimization. These reactions include feelings of low self-esteem, anger, social isolation and anxiety.
Furthermore, victimization can destroy people's basic trust of the world, challenge their assumptions about personal safety and security and disrupt their abilities to function at work, school and home.
Complicated Victim Reactions:
Dissociation and numbing. Following criminal victimization, victims might display a range of unexpected emotional and behavioral reactions. Although many of these reactions are consistent with our cultural scripts for how victims "should" react after assaults or other serious crimes (e.g., overt distress, anger, disbelief or sadness), other victim reactions in which there is little or no over distress (e.g., numbness, dissociation or frozen fright) can be confusing to outside observers. The absence of overt distress is no indication that the victim is doing well or that the crime did not really occur.
These types of "shutting down" responses are frequently observed among crime victims, particularly among sexual assault survivors.
A traumatic event, such as a crime, can overwhelm a person's ordinary capacity to cope with stress. The lack of control and terror experienced during a traumatic event is sometimes so overwhelming that a traumatized person's body and mind automatically engage in efforts to diminish the emotional overload. This process is referred to as dissociation.
These reactions can be confusing to observers who mistakenly infer from the victim's outward presentations that they must not be too upset or perhaps that no crimes ever took place. It is critical to note that not all victims show distress outwardly by displaying high levels of emotion. If victims have dissociated during or after the crimes, they might seem nonresponsive or even very calm afterward.
Traumatic memory. Other aspects of victim reactions can also be confusing, especially for the police officers who need to elicit a clear, detailed, and coherent statement from victims to facilitate the identification and apprehension of offenders. How information is stored, processed and retrieved in our memories varies under conditions of fear and threat compared with how information is handled under more ordinary circumstances.
During trauma, attention narrows and is directed toward cues that have survival value. Because of this difference, victims might provide very detailed descriptions of weapons but remain unable to offer any information about the offender's appearance. Although this can be very frustrating for police officers, these memory problems are useful from a victim-survival standpoint.
Similarly, memories for traumatic experiences can appear very jumbled, lacking the structure, integration and coherence of ordinary nontraumatic memories. The ability to provide a verbal or written narrative account of an incident (i.e., an organized story with a beginning, middle and end) is thought to result from a complex psychological process in which sensory, emotional, cognitive and behavioral experiences are integrated to produce a coherent story.
Trauma disrupts the processing necessary to construct coherent accounts of stressful experiences and events.
It is useful to remember that victims are probably not trying to be obstructive or evasive. In addition, incoherent accounts are unlikely to be the result of mental illness but, rather, the natural consequence of the cognitive confusion that victims sometimes experience when they are overwhelmed by trauma.
The second author of this article and Dr. Patricia Resick of the University of Missouri-St. Louis, found that memory for traumatic events, such as sexual assaults, might actually improve during the first few months after the crime. When missing pieces of the story subsequently emerge, this should not be construed as evidence that a victim is consciously "changing her story."
Helping Crime Victims Cope
How well victims cope with crimes and how quickly they readjust depend on several factors, including the seriousness of the crimes; the victims' ages, educational levels, and histories of emotional problems; and whether they were previous victims of crimes. Moreover, the reactions of other people, such as family members, friends and neighbors, can have unintended negative consequences for victims. Friends and family members can themselves be so devastated by the victimization that they are unable to be caring and understanding, leaving victims feeling confused and abandoned.
On the other hand, positive, nonblaming responses from friends and family members can have a beneficial influence on recovery from criminal victimization.
Victims can be "victimized" a second time by the unsympathetic reactions of police and attorneys, unnecessary trips to court, inadequate protection against offender intimidation and poor handling of property. Because of the bulk of the criminal justice system's resources is devoted to apprehending, prosecuting and punishing criminals, comparatively few resources remain available for crime victims.
Consequently, millions of Americans are denied participation in the criminal justice system and the interventions that they need to recover.
Recognizing the traumatic effects of criminal victimization, the Office of Victims of Crime in Washington, D.C., has funded numerous projects to educate mental health and other professionals about the devastating effects of criminal victimization and to provide support and services for victims. In addition, several nonprofit agencies and centers offer mental health services to crime victims and their families.
Staff at the National Crime Victims Research Center at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, for example, educate mental health professionals about victims' reactions and train professionals in effective techniques for alleviating victims' distress. Counselors from the Victim Services Agency in New York City work in police precincts and courts where they provide victims with crisis intervention and stress management services.
The National Organization for Victim Assistance dispatches crisis response teams to assist police officers, medical practitioners, and religious leaders in communities that have experienced serious crimes. Finally, representatives from the National Center for Victims of Crime work with more than 10,000 grassroots organizations throughout the county to address victims' needs and to educate the public regarding victims' rights and legislations.
Police Responses to Victims
Patrol officers are in an advantageous position to offer help to crime victims. Patrol officers are the first, and often the only, members of the criminal justice system to have contact with the crime victims. When officers arrive at crime scenes, victims might be in severe emotional distress, experiencing shock while feeling helpless and disoriented.
At this point, the attention that victims receive from trained professionals can be critical in determining recovery.
Police occupy a central position in networks helping victims because of their ability to provide emergency responses to reports of serious crimes.
Police training: As part of a large study of recovery from rape and recent sexual assault conducted by Resick and Mechanic, victims reported that the police were generally supportive and that they were satisfied with their interactions with police. Many of the women in this study were interviewed by police officers from the sexual assault unit who had extensive sexual assault training and experience with sexual assault victims.
Not surprisingly, the women who described their interactions with police as supportive reported fewer posttraumatic stress symptoms than did women who reported that their interactions with police were unsupportive or neutral.[PAGEBREAK]
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.