New Interviewing Techniques are Changing How We Understand Sexual Assault Cases.

Detective Sergeant Kathy Flynn is taking a long time to answer the question.  She’s looking up across her office at a whiteboard listing her active cases, a half dozen sexual assaults, rapes and other similar offences it’s Thursday the first week of the new school year  I’ve just asked her about the cases she regrets.  Eventually she begins to speak. “I can think of times that I talked to victims and its intimidating and they’re trying to answer the question so when you say. ‘What happened next’ they kinda freeze.  Don’t answer, don’t know.”

“In the past I took that as well, you were there? You don’t know what happened next? You should know.  So there are some people now that I owe apologies to that I can’t reach. We didn’t fight for them because we didn’t ask the right questions.”

Since she joined the University of Oregon Police Department in September 2013, Flynn has been focused on improving the ways that the university responds to sexual assault cases.   Part of this effort has been the implementation of Forensic Experiential Trauma Interview or FETI.

FETI is an interviewing technique that builds off recent research on how trauma affects memory.  According to Flynn, police officers used to be trained to approach situations linearly, establishing sequences of causally linked events to reconstruct a crime scene.  But, that’s not how Flynn says traumatic memories work. Generally, the victim remembers everything that happened. Often in vivid detail. But, the order of those memories can be severely disrupted.   “It’s like 52 card pickup,” Flynn tells me. “All the cards in the deck are there but they’re all over the place.” With FETI the officer doesn’t ask, “What happens next?” Instead the question is, “What do you remember next?” This shifts the burden of reconstructing the event off the victim and places it on an officer trained to do so.

This new methodology can have substantial benefits not just in reconstructing events but in assessing truth and falsehood.  Now officers like Flynn understand that fractured memory doesn’t come from people fabricating traumatic events. It’s a direct symptom of the events themselves.

This new technique and the understandings that come with it are still limited in their reach.  Down the hall, on a screen in her colleague’s office, Judge Brett Kavanaugh can be heard testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee.  He stands accused of sexual assault by Deborah Ramirez and others. Ramirez’ accounts of the event are jumbled and disconnected but quite detailed, exactly what FETI suggests the memories of a trauma survivor should look like.  Despite this the Senators questioning her repeatedly use this scattering to assert that her account is inaccurate.

I ask Flynn what she thinks of the hearings.  She is reluctant to provide specifics. It’s not her case.  Instead she offers a relevant statistic. “The false reporting rate for all crimes, not just sexual assault, is somewhere between two and ten percent, with some new studies even lower.  Until I have any evidence to the contrary I believe the victims. And numbers show overwhelmingly that victims are telling the truth.”