Russell Strand held up a 100-piece puzzle box as a metaphor for a typical criminal case, each piece inside representing a specific memory a victim has of the crime that investigators try to put together.
But when victims experience trauma, he said, their puzzle requires a different approach.
“What happens in trauma is this,” he said, throwing a dozen pieces in the air. What victims don’t get, he said, is the puzzle box — with its picture of the complete puzzle.
Strand used the example to illustrate the reasoning behind his specialized method of interviewing and working with victims of trauma and sexual assault, which he taught Tuesday to about 125 Minneapolis and University of Minnesota police officers. Prosecutors from Ramsey and Hennepin counties also attended the program.
The training comes at a time when sexual assault on college campuses has been in the national spotlight, and as Minneapolis prepares for more sex trafficking when the city hosts the Super Bowl next year.
Strand, a retired U.S. Army special agent and former chief of behavioral sciences, education and training at the Army’s military police school, developed his victim-centric approach after working with victims and learning how trauma affects their brains.
He said the typical “who, what, when, where, why and how” questions that investigators ask are difficult for trauma victims to answer because the brain’s prefrontal cortex often shuts down during traumatic events, leaving victims with only experiential details.
It doesn’t make sense, he said, that investigators are trained to seek information that victims often don’t remember.
“We have an unrealistic expectation of victims,” he said. “That is not the way the brain works.”
Instead, Strand elicits details from victims through his Forensic Experiential Trauma Interview (FETI) method. The questions he teaches cops to ask are open-ended and center on the victim’s experience — their thoughts before and during a crime, tactile memories such as smells, sounds and feelings, and details of the experience that they can’t forget.
Strand said it’s important for officers to be empathetic throughout the interview.
“A lot of police departments think that what they’re doing is trauma-informed because they’re nice to a person,” he said. “But you could be nice to a person and really trip them up very well.”
Matthew Clark, University of Minnesota police chief, said it was important for the university and city police to partner on student sexual assault cases. He said some campus officers had received this training and brought it to his attention, but this was the first time the department had offered it on a wider scale.
Though investigators are often trained to fill out reports chronologically, he said, it’s important for them to learn how to adapt to victims’ experiences.
“When you start talking about your experience based on your senses, you actually start telling the tale of what happened,” Clark said. “But you can’t dictate it; you’ve got to let those victims go with it the way they experienced it.”
Bruce Folkens, deputy chief of investigations with the Minneapolis police, said the training is meant to “not re-victimize” people.
“Justice served is a lot of different things,” Folkens said. “Not re-victimizing the victim is justice, too.”