How Leaders Can Sustain Changes to Sexual Violence Investigations

Across the nation, progressive law enforcement agencies are changing the way they investigate sexual assaults. In recent years, with new information gathered from the science of trauma, we have learned many things about why victims of sexual violence are disorganized in their thoughts and recollections and why suspects are not. We discovered why victims of rape are more likely than not to delay their report to law enforcement, and this should never be held against them. And finally, we have learned that initial empathy shown toward victims not only goes a long way toward gaining their cooperation, it also begins their healing process.

Law enforcement chief executives are firmly behind these improvements in most organizations, as are the sexual violence detectives. So why do agencies ebb and flow in actualizing their commitment to these changes? Where do we lose the momentum? I think the answer is the constant flux and change in middle management, specifically captains, lieutenants and sergeants.

Historically, most law enforcement agencies rotate middle managers in and out of investigative units, especially at the command level (lieutenants and captains). Even SVU (special victims unit) sergeants are likely to move, since they are normally some of the most productive members of the agency and are likely to be promoted out of SVU. Because of this constant transition, law enforcement agencies must ensure all middle managers commit to sustaining these changes in how we address sexual assault cases.

There are four key components to upholding the improvements to sexual assault investigations that only middle management, specifically division commanders, can carry out.

First, because division commanders are normally responsible for division of labor between detective squads, they must ensure SVU detectives have the time needed to work each case to its fullest. The new, more effective sexual violence investigative techniques are labor intensive and time consuming. Staffing and resources are always at a premium, so in order to make these investigations a priority, it may require changing squad case assignments and/or ending the investigation of some economic and property crime.

Second, division commanders and SVU supervisors are responsible for holding their detectives accountable. They must ensure the investigation is as thorough as possible. Bosses are there to reinforce good work and correct poor work. They must call out detectives who fall into the old ways of blaming the sexual violence victim’s behavior as opposed to being focused on how the suspect acted.

Third, bosses are also responsible for ensuring proper training for new detectives and continued advanced training for current detectives. Working sexual violence cases is complex, and training can be time consuming and expensive. A commitment to training is critical.

Lastly, criminal investigation commanders are the only ones who can hold the entire agency accountable. They are the ones who sit in at command staff meetings. They are the only ones who can confront other parts of the agency when they are not doing everything they can to embrace this new way to investigate sexual violence cases. Line personnel do not have the status to ensure the changes become permanent.

These changes are being made by forward thinking law enforcement agencies throughout the country. The challenge now is SUSTAINING them.

I believe middle management is the key, delineated above are the reasons why, including ensuring proper staffing of SVU squads, emphasizing advanced training, and holding both detectives and the entire agency accountable.

We are making progress, but it can only continue with a strong commitment by middle managers.

Lt. Mike Schentrup
is the Criminal Investigations Commander for the Gainesville (FL) Police Department.

Grace Frances is the Director of Certification and Special Projects for the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence.

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