If your public service involves interviewing surviving victims of or eyewitnesses to violent events, you will want to learn more about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the Witness Memory Retrieval Technique and how each can impact your investigation.
Research proves there are two distinct human processes that prevent investigators and police personnel from conducting the most effective investigation when working with surviving victims of and eyewitnesses to violent crimes. Those processes have been identified as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Memory Retrieval (Recall).
What is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and how does it impact the Witness Memory Retrieval process?
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a reaction to a violent event that evokes intense fear, terror and helplessness. Many surviving victims of violent crimes…rape, robbery, murder, kidnapping, terrorism, sexual abuse and physical assault, for example, are unable to recognize the signs of emotional stress they are experiencing. Traumatic events trigger feelings in victims from which they cannot easily recover, largely because they have not been helped to recognize and subsequently deal with their emotional and behavioral changes. These feelings impede an investigators’ ability to retrieve additional significant information paramount to solving a case.
As a police officer or investigator you are often the first contact victims have following a traumatic encounter. The importance of police interaction with victims cannot be underestimated. In many instances, victims suffer what is known as second injury in their interactions with police, judges, attorneys, physicians and other public authority figures. The term “second injury” refers specifically to a psychological injury, rather than a physical injury. The event will leave the victim in a vulnerable state of mind, causing them to perceive situations in a distorted and overly negative light.
Although it is natural to establish common perceptions about the kinds of behavior people exhibit, know that things are not always as they appear. The outcome of effective police-victim interviewing can have a positive dual impact, aiding you in retrieving pertinent and factual data relevant to your case, while protecting the immediate and potential future emotional well-being of the victim.
While you certainly are not expected to be an expert diagnostician or mental health professional, you are in an ideal position to help. Acquiring even basic information on PTSD combined with practical experience and cognitive interviewing skills can be a major benefit for eliciting more precise and vital investigative information.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder manifests itself in phases beginning with the initial impact or shock the victim suffers and ultimately resulting in a healthy recovery. Dr. Calvin J. Frederick, retired Chief of Psychological Services at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in West Los Angeles, California has spent a career researching PTSD and has developed a Table that lists the phases a victim moves through and the physiological and psychological symptoms a victim is likely to display following a violent event.
In addition to becoming more aware of the signs of PTSD, there are initial intervention responses available to you. According to Dr. Martin Symonds, retired New York City Police Department psychiatrist, the first moments of police contact with a victim/witness are the most critical moments.
It is essential that the victim be provided with a feeling of trust and support and a lessening of any external threat following the trauma of a violent crime. Police officers, especially non-uniformed officers, should immediately identify themselves as such to the victim/witness.
It would be helpful to include basic opening conversation such as “I’m sorry this happened to you” “It wasn’t your fault” and/or “I’m glad you’re alright.” This combined with preliminary intervention techniques will reinforce the victims’ trust that they are dealing with law enforcement officers who are sensitive to and aware of the trauma being suffered.
Lastly, the method in which a victim/witness is interviewed for police report taking is not only crucial to his/her emotional healing but also to the type and amount of investigative information you are able to retrieve.
The most widely used ‘standard’ method of interviewing is a series of questions beginning with a description of the suspect(s) – sex, age, race, height, weight, color of hair and eyes and the victim’s account of the event.
The second method of interviewing is hypnosis, generally performed by a specially trained forensic hypnotist. With the victim in a state of altered consciousness, the forensic hypnotist asks questions and solicits answers. This method is the least used because of the negative legal ramifications it poses within the judicial system.
The third method is the cognitive Witness Memory Retrieval Technique (WMRT), researched and developed by Dr. R. Edward Geiselman of the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). WMRT is a collection of memory-jogging techniques designed to provide investigators with an organized series of focused memory retrieval ‘cues’ and steps that help victims/witnesses retrieve and elaborate on information stored in the memory.
The theoretical support of the research and development are based on two generally accepted principles of memory:
- A memory is comprised of several elements. The more elements a memory retrieval ‘cue’ has in common with the recall of an event, the more effective the ‘cue’ is in retrieving information.
- A memory has several access routes, so information that is not accessible with one retrieval ‘cue’ may be accessed with a different one.
The purpose of the Witness Memory Retrieval Technique, when used in conjunction with the standard interview method, maximizes the quantity and quality of information retrieved while minimizing the effects of misleading or inaccurate information.
Skillful incident-specific treatment is an absolute prerequisite for effective police-victim relations and problem resolution. Determining the most reliable and effective tools available is a concern for most law enforcement investigators. Any valid interviewing instrument should be designed to deduce the pertinent facts, identifications and recollection of the event that best assist you in the apprehension and conviction of the criminal suspect(s). Essential bits of information can make the difference between the time you spend on solid leads and the time you spend following up on weak ones.
As you well know violent events happen in a matter of seconds and yet it’s amazing what the memory can store…
To test your own Memory Recall for FREE click here!
For more information on the Witness Memory Retrieval Technique Training Video, the PTSD Tables and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder click here!