A number of recent studies on neurobiology and trauma show that the ways in which the brain processes harrowing events accounts for victim behavior that often confounds cops, prosecutors, and juries.
…In the past decade, neurobiology has evolved to explain why [rape] victims respond in ways that make it seem like they could be lying, even when they’re not. Using imaging technology, scientists can identify which parts of the brain are activated when a person contemplates a traumatic memory such as sexual assault. The brain’s prefrontal cortex—which is key to decision-making and memory—often becomes temporarily impaired. The amygdala, known to encode emotional experiences, begins to dominate, triggering the release of stress hormones and helping to record particular fragments of sensory information. Victims can also experience tonic immobility—a sensation of being frozen in place—or a dissociative state. These types of withdrawal result from extreme fear yet often make it appear as if the victim did not resist the assault.
This is why, experts say, sexual assault victims often can’t give a linear account of an attack and instead focus on visceral sensory details like the smell of cologne or the sound of voices in the hallway. “That’s simply because their brain has encoded it in this fragmented way,” says David Lisak, a clinical psychologist and forensic consultant who trains civilian and military law enforcement to understand victim and offender behavior.
Lisak and Tremblay, also a consultant, teach an open-ended, narrative approach that elicits sensory details and allows a victim to describe the assault in her own words. This means asking questions about what she smelled, felt, or heard as a way of delicately gathering evidence that may corroborate her account. If, for example, she correctly identifies the rapist’s cologne, Lisak says, that’s a sign she can provide accurate recollections. He remembers a case in which the victim’s initial memory of her assault was cloudy, but when asked about sounds, she recalled hearing the assailant walking in her apartment. That triggered another memory of him talking on the phone to a car mechanic. She had enough details of the conversation to allow the police to find the mechanic, who confirmed that he spoke to the assailant.
In contrast, police officers with no specialized training often antagonize victims as they zero in on discrepancies. It’s understandable: Cops learn to interview victims based on interrogation practices, which emphasize establishing a timeline and key facts. But what may seem like good police work, Lisak says, can lead a detective to press victims in a way that yields misleading or false information, as they prematurely try to piece together fragmented memories.
Cops must also learn that trauma influences victims in ways law enforcement won’t necessarily understand. One notorious example is victims’ flat affect. This always puzzled senior officer Holly Whillock, a 13-year veteran of the Houston Police Department. She expected victims to be enraged or visibly anguished, but instead they spoke coolly, without emotion.
While Whillock thought the muted response might be the result of trauma, she also knew it would be a weakness in court. Defense attorneys question detectives on a victim’s bearing, often asking: “How could she have been raped if she didn’t react when you asked her about the assault?” It’s a simple way to destroy a victim’s credibility—unless a cop can explain why a victim’s lack of affect is a normal response following a traumatic experience. It can actually support the victim’s account, says Dr. Rebecca Campbell, a professor of ecological-community psychology at Michigan State University who recently trained the Houston Police Department.
–Rebecca Ruiz, “Why Don’t Cops Believe Rape Victims?“