Detectives assigned to probe sexual assaults play a critical role in gaining and honoring the trust of the victims that come forward with their harrowing experiences. This fragile correspondence may improve in New York City — where, according to a Sunday report by The Wall Street Journal, the New York Police Department is considering a different strategy to understand and tackle sexual violence victims. The Journal reported that the NYPD may consider open-ended questions for sexual assault victims during their interview processes.
The head of the NYPD's Special Victims Division, Michael Osgood, explained the strategy to the Journal — known as a Forensic Experiential Trauma Interview, or FETI — stating that getting into the sensory element of a person's experience can help detectives improve their search for the culprit. In this kind of interview style, the interviewer will place emphasis on the sensory aspect of the victim's experience. In other words, asking the victim what she felt during the experience can give insight into the incident and improve the search for the culprit.
"When you say, 'What did you feel?' they can now go to their experienced part of the brain and their sensory part of the brain and they now start telling you stuff," Osgood told the Journal. According to Osgood, the FETI interview takes on a rigorous psychological method and fields input from the victim's primitive brain where we retain sensory information about sight, smell, sound, touch, and taste.
According to research, the human brain's prefrontal cortex may shut down during a traumatic event, consequently affecting and obstructing concrete details about an exceptionally intense experience. Under the FETI strategy, detectives can try to glean details that a victim may have retained during a traumatic event from the primitive part of their brain where significant sensory input remains.
Normally, investigative professionals stick to the five W's: who, what, when, where, and why. In this kind of method, detectives seem to be attempting to get the basic and preliminary details out of the accuser so that they may paint a coherent picture of the event being reported. But some believe that the conventional approach may not be helpful for victims and may only intimidate them into silence. Sonia Ossorio, president of the National Organization for Women-New York City, told the Journal, "The old standard of grilling the victim like a suspect is woefully outdated but still is the norm."
One of the city's detectives, Eusebio Santos, told the Journal that he had interviewed some 30 victims according to the FETI method and it was helping him gain more insight into the victim's experience. The general way of going about asking a victim fundamental questions, according to Santos, wasn't leading him anywhere in his investigation. But when he asked victims to recall how they felt, if they smelled anything, tasted anything strange, saw something peculiar, and more, they would begin to narrate their experience with more confidence.
The FETI method may just help sexual assault victims recall memories without feeling constricted by more fundamental and bare questioning styles. By trying to remember sensory-based elements of the event, they can explain how they felt and what they saw in more a natural and contextual manner, which is reflective of the complex and often contradictory ways in which the human brain works. According to research from End Violence Against Women International, the human brain under trauma does not store memories in a chronological order.
For victims, this style of questioning would be essential because it allows them to narrate their experience with key observations about their surroundings. Maybe with the help of NYPD's FETI strategy, more victims of sexual assault in the city will feel confident enough to confide in a detective and gain justice.