Sexual Assault & Violence Response Training: What Police Can Do Better
After retiring from police work, former Detective Justin Boardman of Salt Lake City, Utah, started training police officers across the country in how to approach domestic violence and sexual assault investigations by understanding the neurobiology of trauma. In this interview, he describes the problems with our current approach to violent crime investigations and what police can do to better support crime survivors.
Mikayla Hellwich: So give me your elevator pitch — what do your trainings cover?
Justin Boardman: Our training approach is victim-centered, suspect focused. They’re usually about sexual assault and domestic violence and how police officers and their departments can conduct those investigations with the victim at the forefront. A person who undergoes trauma, especially in the time immediately after the event, will communicate and recall details in a counterintuitive way. Police will often ask the wrong questions and in an unhelpful or uncompassionate way. Historically, police have not dealt with these investigations well — and we don’t collaborate enough with experts in other disciplines — nurses, survivor advocates, homeless services. So I teach officers how to communicate effectively with the survivor and keep their needs present throughout the investigation.
What are some examples of right questions and wrong questions that police might ask a trauma victim?
Wrong questions include direct questions and questions about peripheral details — How tall was he? What was he wearing? These visual details are often hard to recall because trauma can impair memory.
The right questions would be more open-ended, thoughtful, and invoke the 5 senses, not just vision. This would sound more like, “When he had his hands around your throat, can you describe how that felt?” The survivor might respond with what seems like an obvious answer, “I felt like I was going to die.” But, we find that survivors who are asked these sensory questions — and with a gentle and understanding tone — are more likely to trust us and have better satisfaction with the system. They open up more, and this gives us more information to corroborate. The justice system isn’t just about punishing the bad guys, it’s also about helping survivors heal. Too often, we inadvertently treat violence victims with the same affect and intensity that we treat perpetrators.
Trauma-informed interviews and the questions you ask seem to be great for building trust and helping the survivor. Do your methods also improve the quality of police investigations? Are you more likely to get the information you need? Do sensory questions get the same results?
The questions we teach in our trainings are just as helpful, if not more helpful, for the investigation because you’re going to get more detail about the incident if the survivor trusts you and feels heard. If they feel safe, they’ll process more of the experience, which can help them remember other details like the perpetrator’s appearance. Asking questions about the smells and the sounds they heard and which direction they came from — that can open up their field of vision. You might never get what the perpetrator was wearing, but you might get some really useful details you hadn’t considered.
That sounds a bit like trauma therapy — walking the victim through the event in a safe way to help them process the experience.
Don’t get me wrong, I did police work for years and we have good intentions when we go into these investigations, but we haven’t been given all the tools. Police work is really hard. You’re a jack-of-all-trades and a master of nothing — you’re trying to balance all these different, competing forces and put band-aids on everything. A lot of officers don’t go to the academy to be a social worker, but we graduate and we’re handed a gun and told, “Okay, go be a social worker now.”
What’s most rewarding about leading your trainings?
Seeing the ‘aha’ moments when it clicks for someone. You can see it in their eyes. And the follow up stories — when people email you about how they started using what they learned and have already seen how much better it works — it’s wonderful to see this ripple effect.
That leads in nicely into my next question. What inspired you to do this work?
The desire to change policing culture is huge to me. This kind of knowledge for the police officer shows citizens much more empathy. This training helps gain prosecutions — which across the U.S. are embarrassingly low for sexual assault — and helps get closure for survivors. Our trauma-informed interview protocol quadrupled the rate of sexual assault prosecutions in the West Valley City Police Department (Utah) over only two years.
West Valley Utah Police Department used Boardman’s training program and successfully increased the number of charges filed against perpetrators and successful prosecutions.
I talk to the audience — mostly police officers — about what happens to us out on the road, the kind of trauma we experience every day, and then I compare that to how crime victims experience violence. That puts all of this information into perspective because most police undergo intense, sustained trauma on the job.
What do you wish more people knew about violent crime investigations and that process?
Civil court is an underutilized tool for prosecuting violent crimes. In criminal court, you need “proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” which is much harder to obtain than “clear and convincing evidence,” especially in sexual assault cases. In civil court, you could close with a monetary settlement and the perpetrator doesn’t get a criminal record, so it’s a bit of a trade-off. But for the survivor, prison time isn’t necessarily part of their closure process, as long as their attacker is held accountable. Civil court can also help survivors feel the system is working in their favor. A criminal prosecution can bring closure too, of course, but obtaining a conviction that way is much harder.
Also, we too often look at arrests as a measure of success. Our success should be measured by the quality of the service we provide to facilitate people’s healing. It’s a lot like customer service.
And this healing process for survivors is critical to preventing crime. The criminal justice reform movement is doing a lot of good in this country right now, but we need to be breaking the cycle of violence, too.
There’s something called the Adverse Childhood Experience Study. It’s research we use to measure various aspects of a young violent crime victim’s likelihood of committing crimes in the future. Children who grow up in abusive households are impacted mentally and physically. Because parents or guardians are our first examples of a romantic relationship, if that relationship is violent, it can imprint violent tendencies on a child throughout their life, which creates a generational cycle of abuse. Of course, this doesn’t mean we should pre-emptively criminalize young crime survivors, but ACEs research helps us predict who might offend in the future so we can get them into treatment earlier and prevent horrible tragedies like mass shootings.
Killers nearly all have high ACEs scores, meaning they’re nearly always trauma survivors, and a disproportionate number are later charged with strangulation before they go on a shooting spree or murder their spouse.
One study in the Journal of Emergency Medicine found that of the cases examined, women who had been strangled by an intimate partner were 7x more likely to be homicide victims.
I haven’t heard this before or seen it in the news after a mass shooting. Would you say police and the whole system have a responsibility to identify those who might be mass shooters in the future and find a way to intercept them… connect them with services to prevent those incidents?
As a police officer, if I went to a strangulation call related to domestic violence, research tells me this perpetrator is extremely likely to be a future killer or mass shooter. The whole system could do a better job of intercepting these guys, looking into past trauma, and connecting them with trauma therapy.
Wow. That’s a lot to take in.
Let’s circle back to your trainings. What are the participants like — do they tend to come in with some knowledge and are refining tools they already have — or are you starting from the ground up? Paint me a picture of who’s in attendance.
Some are resistant, some are not. Some have heard about the neurobiology of trauma, some haven’t. It’s really a mixed bag. I try to train in multidisciplinary teams — so we have nurses, advocates, prosecutors, and the local press in with the police. We include these other disciplines because I want police to work better with other service providers.
Have you encountered any obstacles in promoting the training? Any issues getting off the ground or challenges you’d like to share?
The follow up is lacking. We’re able to do training — but we can only shove so much into a brain in 4 hours. It’s like drinking from a fire hose.
If you could wave a magic wand and create better follow up, what would that look like?
We need this taught in the academy as a core element. And then have follow up training every few years. The whole system should be trained — from dispatchers to prosecutors.
A trauma-informed police academy would have sexual assault and domestic violence training woven through the entire training process — firearms training, arrest control tactics, communication skills, community policing — all of it.
Det. Justin Boardman (Ret.) lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, and now speaks on behalf of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership. He’s an expert in trauma-informed investigations into violent crimes and police training. His acclaimed training programs have reached police officers across the U. S.
Mikayla Hellwich is the Speakers Bureau & Media Relations Director for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership.