UT breaks new ground in campus policing of sexual assault

Researchers at UT-Austin developed a blueprint for campus police that could help all colleges

As victims of trauma, sexual assault survivors behave differently than people reporting other types of crimes. Sometimes they describe their assaults in ways that don’t seem logical to investigators. They do not offer chronological accounts of their experiences. They shift their stories to appease their listeners, choosing the final strategy in a “fight, flight, freeze, or appease” response.

Michael Heidingsfield, University of Texas System director of police, says law enforcement has historically taken a general approach to investigating crimes, using the same processes and protocols whether the case was based on a homicide, a theft, or a sexual assault. Now, using a blueprint created by The University of Texas at Austin Institute on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault, 600 sworn police officers on UT campuses will get more specialized training.

That training will be victim-centered, science-based, and trauma-informed, following a nearly two-year long research collaboration between the institute and the office of the director of police. And Noel Busch-Armendariz, director of the IDVSA, hopes the blueprint will begin a culture change on campuses across Texas, and, indeed, the entire United States.

The 170-page blueprint is based on a case study of 14 University of Texas campuses, representing significant diversity within the individual police forces and among the people they serve. Busch-Armendariz expect that diversity to help broaden the reach of the blueprint, which now focuses on Texas law but could be relevant to any police investigator or first responder dealing with sexual assault allegations from college-aged students.

“The crown jewel to this research effort for us is now having the science to understand neurobiology, victimology, and apply that to how the victims present themselves to police officers so we can better understand and appreciate what they are saying,” Heidingsfield said.

While police officers have long been seen as unsympathetic toward victims of sexual assault, Heidingsfield believes better training will help turn officers into active participants in the restorative process for victims. He wants to see the system’s police force meet at the intersection of empathy and science, using the research outlined in the blueprint to leave tradition behind.

Long-term goals for the University of Texas include encouraging higher rates of reporting by victims of sexual assault. While it is believed that as many as one in five female college students become victims before they graduate, a small fraction of them actually report their experiences. The Obama administration’s guidance about gender equity law Title IX advertised an alternate path for students who want to come forward, but not to police. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights is now buried under a mountain of complaints from students who argue their civil rights were violated in the aftermath of their sexual assaults.

If victims more often report their assaults to police and police are better trained, Heidingsfield expects more successful prosecutions.

“If the police officers are better informed to understand their victims, then they are better positioned to translate the victim’s actions, reactions, memories, and recollections into a coherent statement of what has occurred,” Heidingsfield said, which, in turn, gives them better leverage with prosecutors.

“Even if our ability to get to prosecution is something short of what’s desirable, we’re able to provide some procedural justice to the victims who will feel they have been heard, that they have been listened to, in a way that itself is restorative,” Heidingsfield added.

Among the best practices highlighted in the blueprint are to:

  • adopt a victim-centered, trauma-informed approach at all stages of policing,
  • incorporate the expertise of experienced sexual assault investigators, acknowledging the complexity of such cases,
  • collect a victim statement or conduct a secondary interview 24 to 48 hours after the assault so victims have time to sleep, which will improve their recollection of the event,
  • collaborate with local law enforcement, but keep jurisdiction so students can work with those who understand them most,
  • form a Campus Sexual Assault Response Team, and
  • limit the number of times victims have to re-tell their stories as much as possible.

While there have been relatively few resources for campus police departments interested in better training officers on the intricacies of campus sexual assault, the UT blueprint provides a research-based path forward. The entire document can be found here.

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Filed Under: Higher Ed Policy & Regulation
Top image credit: Stephen Cummings