Transcript: Interview with Dr. Rebecca Campbell on the Neurobiology of Sexual Assault

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Trauma versus lying: How can law enforcement tell the difference?

Rebecca Campbell I got interested in this issue because I have done a lot of research with law enforcement, and they have talked about how when victims come in to give their report, what they say doesn't seem to make sense to them. It seems suspicious. They don't quite believe what the victim is saying. They don't believe the way the victim's acting, and I was sort of curious about that as a psychologist of, well, the victim's behavior makes total sense to me. Why doesn't it make total sense to you, law enforcement?

So this presentation is about taking what we know from psychology and about neurobiology and how victims act, and trying to bring that to the criminal justice system so that they can understand why victims are acting the way they do so that we don't start off the entire interaction under a cloud of suspicion.

How did you become interested in this type of work?

This process has been very interesting for me, and it goes back to an experience I had way back right after I finished my Ph.D. I was doing some work with the Chicago police department. I was a young pup in my late twenties. I knew everything, as you do in your late twenties, and I was working with a sex crimes unit detective who knew everything, and we both knew everything, and so he was 100 percent right that most victims lie, and I was 100 percent sure and right that most victims don't. And I remember that experience very vividly of me looking at him like, "You're obviously wrong," and he's looking at me like, "You're obviously wrong," and so we just kind of agreed to disagree and just went about our lives, but I always kind of came back to that of how is it possible that we're both so sure we're right? And I'm thinking, "All I need to do is just give him the research." So in my subsequent career I did a lot of trainings with law enforcement where I had all my graphs and my tables and my charts — "See, here's the rates of false reports" — and they're still looking at me like, "Uh-huh, right, we don't believe you." And when I started interviewing them and they started saying these things like, "Well, she's making it up as she's going along. This is sketchy." I'm like, "Oh, well, that's the trauma. That's what psychology is." And that's when my light bulb went off of, like, "Oh, once we can get to the root causes of understanding victims' behavior, that's what law enforcement are hungry for. That's the information that they want."

So since I've started bringing this into my work, it's been that light bulb experience for law enforcement of, "Oh, that's why I'm seeing what I'm seeing." And their attribution has always been that I'm lying and why they were 100 percent sure they were right, because they saw this behavior. And they were right. They saw the behavior, but their attribution about it, I think, was incorrect, and so what I've been able to do in my practice in research and in victims is sort of say, "Let's bring what we know from science into this. This is why this behavior is happening, and let's focus on that and understanding that and take away all the attributions about lying and dishonesty and making it up as you go along. Let's get to the root of the case and go investigate the case," and law enforcement have been very receptive to this message because they found their behavior curious. Now, they have an answer for it.

What is the impact of this training on law enforcement?

It's both an attitude shift and a behavior shift. The attitude shift is about the suspicion of — they are having the survivor sit down and assume she is lying, and that's the assumption that I think a lot of law enforcement have come to, partially because of victim-blaming attitudes but partially because they didn't have the substantive training in their own background in law enforcement to know that the behavior that they see in the victim, of being evasive and sketchy, isn't her making it up; that's what trauma looks like. But they have been trained that sketchiness is lying, okay, so the attitude piece is about coming into this with an open mind and not the assumption of the victim being dishonest or lying.

The behavior part is changing the way they do the interview, and the way they are taught to interview is when they get the first sort of sketchy part, to pounce on it. Go back over it over and over and over again. All that's doing is it is exacerbating the victim's trauma, and it's not going to help the recall of the event, which is what everybody is there for, is to recall the event, to get the information, so that law enforcement can then go investigate the case. So this information changes the way they think but also the way they behave.

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What is secondary victimization??

Campbell When a victim comes in to report an assault, it's not uncommon that she or he would have to describe the assault multiple times in excruciating detail. And, from the victim's point of view, this is usually being done within the first 24, 48, sometimes 72 hours after the assault. The trauma is still very fresh. So talking about it is emotionally very difficult, and how that can behaviorally manifest is that the story can come out in bits and pieces and fits and starts and cycle back over on itself, or, "Oh wait a minute, I remembered this detail." It comes out in a very disorganized way. And for law enforcement, they take those stops and starts and cycle-backs as suspicious. "Why isn't she talking in the way that she should? Why isn't this a nice linear progression of 'this is what happened and this is what happened and this is what happened'?" So what they then do is they start going back over the story again and again and again, and trying to hone in on more details, which is very, very difficult for victims.

So what this whole experience is like for victims is trying to tell the story over and over again. And it becomes, for many survivors, a second assault. And I refer to this as "secondary victimization." That sexual assault victims are having to relive the assault, and the way they are treated by the criminal justice system is disempowering, it's victim-blaming, and it feels like they're being raped all over again. They have to explain — "Why were you here? What were you wearing? What did you do to provoke the assault?" It's about proving that she has been raped rather than trying to get an account of a crime that they would then investigate as they would any other crime.

So for most victims it's a very harrowing experience that leaves them feeling blamed, depressed, anxious and reluctant to seek further help. So for a lot of victims the first contact with the criminal justice system is the only contact they have with the criminal justice system. Either they say, "Never mind, forget it. I can't do this." Or the police have interpreted her behavior so suspicious that they close the case before any investigation ever takes place.

Differences between victims who report and those who don't

What I've done in my research is compare victims' health and well-being, psychological health and physical health, for those who reported the assault to the criminal justice system and those who don't, and unfortunately the results are exactly what none of us would want, which is victims who go to the criminal justice system and have these kind of secondary victimization behaviors — their mental health outcomes are worse. We see significantly higher post-traumatic stress symptoms. We see higher physical health symptomatology: headaches, gastrointestinal problems, gynecological and urinary tract infections. And, again, it's not that the criminal justice system causes that. It causes the distress, and the PTSD is the gateway into a lot of negative health consequences. So, yeah, when victims report to the criminal justice system and it doesn't go well, it has a very severe psychological impact that in turn can affect their long-term physical health and well-being.

Benefits of understanding traumatic memory and victim behavior

I think what I'm hoping to do in this talk today and what I hope to do in my training with law enforcement is bring what I know from psychology about victim behavior into their investigational practice. And when they start with that assumption of "what the victim says doesn't make sense," to bring the social science data to bear, to challenge that assumption. To say, "Wait a minute, wait a minute, no. I remember now from this training that the neurobiology of trauma will cause victims to have very unusual, sometimes very unstable, emotions. Some of them will be high and then low, some of them will be very flat. And that doesn't mean she's lying; it means she has all of this different hormonal response going on." And I hope that, from this presentation, law enforcement and other first responders would now understand the neurobiology of memory, and that when you ask a victim to recall the events of the assault, it's going to be very difficult to do because of the way the memory of the assault has been stored throughout the brain. That the victim has to go here, and here, and here, and here, and glue it all together, and that takes time. So when they see the victim stumble or have difficulty piecing it together, it doesn't mean she's lying or making it up as she's going along. She's really having difficulty pulling together the pieces of a traumatic memory and putting it in order.

So little things like that aren't little things at all. They're huge things that would, I think, really change and challenge the way law enforcement think about victims and know that their primary role in that initial interview sometimes is just to sit back, give her the time, give her the space, let it unfold and have the patience to have it come together.

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What changes can improve the investigation and strengthen the case?

Campbell Sure, I think what would be very different, then, is when a victim comes in to do an interview, rather than having to tell and retell the story it becomes, "Tell me once." And it's not being interrupted with questions and details. It's like, let her piece it together. Give her the time and the space to do that. Take the notes, listen, and then cycle back to a few things and, again, always giving the victim a little time and a little space to piece it together.

The main thing is so that the change might be internally for law enforcement to not treat that with such suspicion. To trust that the information has likely been encoded correctly and therefore it is being recounted accurately, and so the job of the law enforcement is to listen to the story and then investigate it.

Who benefits from learning about the neurobiology of trauma?

Think any first responder who interacts with a victim — rape victim advocate. Rape victim advocates often have to stand between law enforcement and the victim. The more that advocates know about this, the more that they can help educate their colleagues in law enforcement about why victims are behaving the way they do. Also, for advocates they've been — most rape crisis centers talk about in their training, "Victims have a wide variety of reactions." What this training does is it provides the science behind that. They've seen that. They've known that from their own practice. This is the science behind their practice. This is why victims have such high emotions, low emotions, flat emotions and everything in between. So I think it's real important for advocates.

It's also real important for medical practitioners — SANE nurses, ER nurses, physicians, anyone who's interacting with the victim in the medical context. Again, because the behaviors that victims exhibit to law enforcement they exhibit to medical, too, in terms of a fragmented story, flat affect, high affect, low affect. And again, medical personnel sometimes blame victims for the assault, too, and they sort of get in that role confusion of thinking they're law enforcement. So in the part of medical care, they're not doing the medical piece. They feel like they're trying to help out the investigation. Not necessary. Their job is to tend to the victim's physical and emotional needs, and they can do that by using these same principles: time, space, a little patience to let the victim tell the story in the way that she needs to, because that's going to be incredibly helpful for victims' health and well-being in the long run.

Describe your current project

The current work I'm doing right now is with the city of Detroit, which has a large number of untested sexual assault kits, and part of that action research project, which is funded by the National Institute of Justice, is to understand how and why this happened. Why did we have so many untested sexual assault kits in Detroit, in Houston, in Los Angeles, in New York City and in so many other jurisdictions we don't even know about? Well, one of the ways that we ended up with so many kits on shelves is because law enforcement didn't believe the victims. Why didn't they believe the victims? Because when the victim came in, they gave a story that to the law enforcement's ears sounded sketchy, fragmented and the like. So what we've been able to do in Detroit is provide training to the Detroit practitioners on the neurobiology of trauma. So we did a little training with just a few of them. They said, "This is fantastic. Now come do it again." So I did it for a larger group, and they said, "You know what? Now we need to hear it for everybody. We need all patrol officers to hear this information." So over the course of several months, we're rolling out training in Detroit where all law enforcement officers in the Detroit police department are going to be having this training, geared for — "Patrol, what do you need to know when a victim first makes their report? Sex crimes unit investigators, what do you need to know? Command, what do you need to know about how long these cases take to successfully investigate and then ultimately send forward for prosecution?"

We're doing similar trainings on neurobiology of trauma with Detroit-area advocates and the medical staff, again, with the goal of saturating the entire community of practitioners with this information so that they can understand victims' behavior and make attributions that are victim-centered, not victim-blaming.

What are the next steps in this field of research?

I think to study it, there's still a lot we don't know about the neurobiology of trauma, particularly why some victims have some reactions versus others. So I think there's a real need for just more basic research on the neurobiology of trauma and how it might manifest at times of an interview, a sexual assault medical forensic exam. This is still kind of a new science.

In terms of disseminating it, again, I think it's about getting the information out to practitioners, not in a preachy way, which I think I would be guilty of myself in terms of prior trainings I've done on false reports, but an education way of, "Here's how information from another discipline might be useful to you. Here's how it can explain what you're seeing and how it can help you do your job more effectively." Because that's what law enforcement's interested in, is doing their job more effectively, and so that's how this information can be useful. So I think that we think about dissemination in terms of trainings, where we get the information out and then they can practice it. It's very important for principles of adult learning to practice information. So to have vignettes, to have opportunities to model this behavior, to work with more experienced officers, to talk with each other about how to do an interview in a victim-centered way.

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