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Victim Intervention Techniques

Bruce Rodgers

M. Silbert (1976) has described a ten-point checklist of techniques for officers to use in field management of victim situations. Frederick (1986) lists twelve intervention responses that are of use to police officers. We have combined and edited these two lists as follows:

1. Officers should introduce themselves by full name and title. This is important in any police encounter with a victim, since it offers him or her a choice of calling officers by name or rank. This gives the victim a certain amount of control, and a first small step toward regaining a sense of mastery over the situation. The personal and behavioral demeanor of officers can mean a great deal, since the victim tends to model his or her behavior on that of officers as authority figures.

2. Briefly verify the crime. This should be done quickly without detailed discussion. Obtain only the necessary information, such as the type of crime being dealt with, whether it involved a weapon, how many people were involved, and whether the criminal had transportation. Officers may explain to the victim that later another officer will be interested in the details, but right now only this basic information is needed. Officers might remark, “Do you think you can help me?” giving the victim another choice.

3. Recognize the victim’s ordeal and reassure him or her of immediate safety. Since victims are often confused and unable to appreciate the presence of the police and what it means for their safety, even though there are several squad cars with emergency lights flashing, it may be necessary for officers to constantly reassure the victim that “it is safe now,” “the police are here,” “we have officers in the area,” “you are safe.” Repeating the word safe is important, since it brings the victim back to the reality of the moment instead of allowing him or her to ruminate about what has happened. The reassurance of safety is also important because the victim, with feelings of guilt and self-blame, may view police officers with mixed emotions — glad to see officers as protectors, but also afraid of them as punishers or blamers. Officers who show empathy immediately will help counter any negative feelings of the victim toward the police. Officers should remember that, to the victim, the ordeal is important, no matter how routine they may consider the case. Even if it is the officers’ third purse-snatching of the day, they must realize that to each of the victims the crime is unique. To convey empathy they might say, “You’ve been through a terrible ordeal; I know it’s been a shock to you. You’re safe now.”

4. Verify the victim’s physical well-being. All injuries may not be visible, particularly assaults. Elderly victims may have vague or nonspecific complaints. Police officers should verify the victim’s well-being immediately or as soon as the victim is calmed down sufficiently to assist. If hospitalization is required, an ambulance should be called and officers should administer whatever emergency first aid is required. If the victim is injured and asks about his or her condition, officers might reply, “We’re going to get you checked out then arrange for anything you may need.” This is not to give the victim false information but to try to build trust and hope. Burdening the victim with additional worries is not conducive to his or her welfare.

5. Solicit the victim’s help in identifying the suspect. Questioning that seems to lack sensitivity and support can compound the trauma and add insult to injury. Demanding that the victim identify or describe the suspect immediately may cause further trauma rather than eliciting useful information. Crime victims, particularly in an assault, have experienced a loss of control over their environment. Officers can help a victim overcome an emotional block resulting from this loss of control by offering choices. Instead of demanding or simply asking what the suspect looked like, officers might say something like: “I’d like to ask you a few questions about what happened, then I’ll explain what we’re going to do. I need your help with one thing right now: finding the suspect. There are other officers waiting to look for him right now. The more information you can give me now, the better chance we have of finding him. Do you think you can calm down enough just to help with this? Good.” These words have several effects. First, the frequent use of the word now helps reinforce the present reality for the victim. The crime is over. He or she is safe. Officers need the information now to help others in the field. Soliciting the victim’s help in this manner offers a choice because officers ask for help rather than demand it. When officers ask if the victim is calm enough to help, they again offer a choice. When they respond to the victim’s affirmative nod with “Good!” they are reinforcing positive behavior.

6. Diffuse crisis emotions. Disclosure of negative or upsetting information can cause great anxiety, even panic. Officers should set up a calm atmosphere, modulate their voices, be active listeners, and introduce reality slowly.

7. Establish the elements of the crime. After the initial moments of crisis have passed, it is time for officers to begin establishing the exact elements of the crime so that they may fill out the report. They should be flexible in filling out the report so that they do not give the victim the impression that they are making demands that the victim must meet. The victim should be allowed to proceed at his or her own pace in describing what has happened. Officers should provide encouragement and reassurance and continue to offer the victim choices. They should ask “Can I make notes while I’m asking the questions?” or “I have to fill out this report. Would it be all right if I make notes and write down your answers on this report form?”

8. **Keep the choices simple. The availability of choices is such an important tool in psychological first aid that it is important that choices not be complicated. The proper response for a simple choice is yes or no. Choices that require more complicated answers are less effective.

9. Explain the procedures that will follow. Police officers tend to forget that although they are familiar with the procedures that follow, the victim is not. In crisis situations, it is especially important that a victim understand what will happen and why, because his or her feeling of helplessness is so pervasive. Even if the victim does not ask what will happen next, it is important for officers to say that a follow-up detective will call as the case progresses. Officers should answer all of the victim’s questions. Even though justification may not be necessary, an explanation is always helpful.

10. Every victim should be encouraged to seek professional help. Officers should convey the impression that seeking psychological assistance is normal. They might say, for example, “These things take their toll on everyone.” “It’s best to get some professional help now to make sure you’re doing okay.” “A little help now will prevent serious problems later.”

11. Preserve the crime scene and collect physical evidence. This procedure is standard and will not be discussed.

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