Investigating the serious crime of sexual assault or rape is perhaps one of the most challenging jobs that confronts police forces advises Nicola Mitchell.
Rape is a serious violent crime perpetrated overwhelmingly by men against women, children, and men. It is the most underreported of all violent crime in the US with only 16-39% of rapes being reported. In England and Wales that statistic is strikingly lower with just 6-18% of rapes being reported to the police. The rate of conviction for rape in Ireland in 2013 was 19% but after taking into account those who contested the charges, the conviction rate was actually 7%. This figure is in line with the British Home Office and Ministry of Justice data (2013) which found that conviction rates have remained at around 7% since 2000.
One of the main obstacles to victims reporting is the ‘rape myth’ which is more commonly referred to as ‘real’ rape. This stereotypical scenario of rape is an assumption that rape is more likely to be true if it is committed by a stranger, with the presence of a weapon and includes inflicting injury on the victim. However, statistics and research contradicts this widely held view of what ‘real’ rape is. Between 70 and 90% of perpetrators are known to the victim, with many of them being intimate partners. In the US only 11% of rapes were committed with the use of a weapon such as a gun or knife. As a result, victims of rape are less likely to report being raped as they fear they won’t be believed and this leads to a lack of trust in the police and criminal justice system.
When investigating allegations of rape, police are often confronted with a number of factors that may influence whether the allegation is deemed to be ‘false’, unfounded, or sent for prosecution. ‘Downstream orientation’ of justice refers to decisions being made on the basis of how others, in particular the jury and the defence team, will interpret and respond to a case. Rape has been referred to as an inherently legal activity made illegal by a lack of consent. Proving lack of consent is sometimes more difficult because the victim is also the only witness, she has had an intimate relationship with the perpetrator, and there is no corroborating physical or forensic evidence. Research has shown that women are less likely to be believed if they were judged to have a negative moral character, were dressed provocatively, were under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or if they suffered from mental health issues. Perpetrators are more likely to be believed if they are known to the victim, are employed, have a privileged status within their local community, and particularly in the US, if they are white and have no previous convictions.
The number of false allegations of rape are generally overestimated with some studies of police officers believing that the figures are between 40-50%. However, the actual rate of false allegations is somewhere between 2-8%, with one study of the LAPD finding a rate of 4.5%. Perhaps not surprisingly, actual ‘false allegations’ are more likely to fit the ‘real rape’ scenario of a stranger rape with the use of a weapon and the threat of physical violence, as these scenarios are more likely to be believed.
Why is there such a gap between the perception of false allegations and the true number? This more often than not comes down to the credibility of the victim. Police often report that the victims were emotionally ‘flat’ during the interview, when it might be expected that victims show signs of upset and distress; they were unable to give a chronological account of what happened; their memory recall of key elements of the attack was poor; and their account showed inconsistencies. These deficits in a victim’s account makes her less ‘credible’ and it is no wonder that law enforcement officials view such accounts with scepticism.
However, neuroscience can provide us with an explanation into why victims’ behaviour does not fit into the expectations of how someone who has been raped should behave. When confronted with a threatening and traumatic event, people will engage in ‘fight’, ‘flight’, or ‘freeze’ to cope with the threat. About one third of women report physically resisting their assailant, and these women are subsequently less likely to report symptoms of distress, depression, self-blame and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, the vast majority of women will experience a freeze response referred to as tonic immobility (TI) or ‘rape-induced paralysis’.
The amygdala is the part of the brain that reacts to sources of emotion, stress and fear, while the prefrontal cortex is responsible for decision-making, judgement and insight. The prefrontal cortex regulates the amygdala and prevents it from over-responding to emotions. Trauma is a heightened form of stress and when the amygdala is over activated the prefrontal cortex can no longer maintain internal stability in the brain. This causes the victim to ‘shut down’ in order to cope with the traumatic event and is known as ‘dissociation’. Dissociation occurs as a result of extreme fear but to the untrained observer may appear as if the victim chose not to resist the assault. When dissociation occurs during and immediately after a traumatic event it is common for the victim to experience disruptions in how the brain encodes and stores the details of the traumatic event. They are more likely to avoid the memories, downplay them or even deny the rape or aspects of the rape occurred. So, when a victim is faced with having to make a statement and revisit the traumatic event, she may have memory gaps which leads to a fragmented or disjointed account of the rape, she may appear emotionless, or she may laugh and smile inappropriately when describing what happened.
The US military has led the way in using knowledge of how trauma affects the brain and in turn affects the behaviour of victims of rape, by incorporating this information in how they investigate rape cases. Victims are encouraged to recount their story by using a ‘narrative’ approach rather than being asked very direct questions designed to establish the sequence of events and highlight inconsistencies. The narrative approach may focus on sensory details such as sounds or smells that the victim remembers, allowing her to piece together her fragmented memory of the event without feeling threatened or re-traumatised by the interviewing process. She is encouraged to start with the most significant details that she can remember and to elaborate from there. This has led to fewer discrepancies in the victims’ accounts of their assaults, and a more positive view of how police deal with victims of rape. This in turn should lead to an increase in the number of rapes reported and ultimately in convictions secured. It will also mean a lower incidence of PTSD among rape victims, as those who delay or do not report the assault are more likely to experience PTSD and depressive symptoms than those who disclose early.
The key to improving rates of reporting and ultimately conviction is to provide appropriate training for personnel who will be investigating allegations of rape and sexual assault. Training should incorporate sound interviewing techniques as well as the neurobiology of trauma. This will help investigators to understand victim behaviour immediately after rape, and why memory recall is often so fragmented. While some victims express a preference for a female investigator, research shows that if a male investigator has good interviewing skills then this will make a female victim feel more comfortable and increase her willingness to prosecute.
Nicola Mitchell is a psychologist and psychotherapist
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