I. Basic Guidelines on Approaching Victims of Crime
The way people cope as victims of
crime depends largely on their experiences immediately following the crime.
As a law enforcement officer, you are usually the first official to approach
victims. For this reason, you are in a unique position to help victims
cope with the immediate trauma of the crime and to help restore their
sense of security and control over their lives.
Circumstances of the crime and the
crime scene determine when and how the first responding officers are able
to address victims and their needs. This publication recognizes that each
crime and crime scene is different and requires officers to prioritize
their performance of tasks in each situation. Generally, officers must
attend to many tasks, including assessing medical needs, determining facts
and circumstances, advising other personnel, and gathering and distributing
suspect information. It is helpful to keep in mind that apprehension of
the suspect is the primary duty of law enforcement and that accomplishing
this task helps not only the suspects current victims but potential victims
as well. Sometimes the first responders must delay their attendance to
the victims if the situation requires. For example, if the crime is ongoing,
or if the collection of evidence or investigation of the crime is extremely
time-sensitive, first responders may not be able to direct their immediate
attention to the victims. However, as soon as the most urgent and pressing
tasks have been addressed, officers will focus their attention on the
victims and their needs. At this point, how the officers respond to the
victims, explain the competing law enforcement duties, and work with the
victims is very important.
By approaching victims appropriately,
officers will gain their trust and cooperation. Victims may then be more
willing to provide detailed information about the crime to officers and
later to investigators and prosecutors, which, in turn, will lead to the
conviction of more criminals. Remember that you are there for the victim,
the victim is not there for you.
You can help victims by understanding
the three major needs they have after a crime has been committed: the
need to feel safe; the need to express their emotions; and the need to
know what comes next after their victimization. The information
in this handbook is designed to show you how to meet these needs.
Tips for Responding to Victims' Three Major Needs
Victims' Need To Feel Safe
People often feel helpless, vulnerable,
and frightened by the trauma of their victimization. As the first response
officer, you can respond to victims' need to feel safe by following these
Introduce yourself to victims by name and title. Briefly explain
your role and purpose.
Reassure victims of their safety and your concern by
paying close attention to your own words, posture, mannerisms, and
tone of voice. Say to victims, You're safe now or I'm
here now. Use body language to show concern, such as nodding
your head, using natural eye contact, placing yourself at the victim's
level rather than standing over seated victims, keeping an open stance
rather than crossing your arms, and speaking in a calm, sympathetic
Ask victims to tell you in just a sentence or two what
happened. Ask if they have any physical injuries. Take care of their
medical needs first.
Offer to contact a family member, friend, or crisis
counselor for victims.
Ensure privacy during your interview. Conduct it in
a place where victims feel secure.
Ask simple questions that allow victims to make decisions,
assert themselves, and regain control over their lives. Examples:
Would you like anything to drink?; May I come inside
and talk with you?; and How would you like me to address
you, Ms. Jones?
Assure victims of the confidentiality of their comments
Ask victims about any special concerns or needs they
Provide a safety net for victims before
leaving them. Make telephone calls and pull together personal or professional
support for the victims. Give victims a pamphlet listing resources
available for help or information. This pamphlet should include contact
information for local crisis intervention centers and support groups;
the prosecutor's office and the victim-witness assistance office;
the State victim compensation/assistance office; and other nationwide
services, including toll-free hotlines.
Give victim'sin writingyour name and information
on how to reach you. Encourage them to contact you if they have any
questions or if you can be of further help.
Victims' Need To Express Their Emotions
Victims need to air their emotions
and tell their story after the trauma of the crime. They need to have
their feelings accepted and have their story heard by a nonjudgmental
listener. In addition to fear, they may have feelings of self-blame, anger,
shame, sadness, or denial. Their most common response is: I don't
believe this happened to me. Emotional distress may surface in seemingly
peculiar ways, such as laughter. Sometimes victims feel rage at the sudden,
unpredictable, and uncontrollable threat to their safety or lives. This
rage can even be directed at the people who are trying to help them, perhaps
even at law enforcement officers for not arriving at the scene of the
crime sooner. You can respond to victims' need to express their emotions
by following these guidelines:
Avoid cutting off victims' expression of their emotions.
Notice victims' body language, such as their posture,
facial expression, tone of voice, gestures, eye contact, and general
appearance. This can help you understand and respond to what they
are feeling as well as what they are saying.
Assure victims that their emotional reactions to
the crime are not uncommon. Sympathize with the victims by saying
things such as: You've been through something very frightening.
I'm sorry; What you' re feeling is completely normal;
and This was a terrible crime. I'm sorry it happened to you.
Counter any self-blame by victims by saying things
such as, You didn't do anything wrong. This was not your fault.
Speak with victims as individuals. Do not just take
a report. Sit down, take off your hat, and place your notepad
aside momentarily. Ask victims how they are feeling now and listen.
Say to victims, I want to hear the whole story,
everything you can remember, even if you don't think it's important.
Ask open-ended questions. Avoid questions that can be
answered by yes or no. Ask questions such
as Can you tell me what happened? or Is there anything
else you can tell me?
Show that you are actively listening to victims through
your facial expressions, body language, and comments such as Take
your time; I'm listening and We can take a break if you
like. I'm in no hurry.
Avoid interrupting victims while they are telling their
Repeat or rephrase what you think you heard the victims
say. For example, Let's see if I understood you correctly. Did
you say. . .?; So, as I understand it, . . .; or
Are you saying. . . ?
Victims' Need To Know What Comes Next
After Their Victimization
Victims often have concerns about their
role in the investigation of the crime and in the legal proceedings. They
may also be concerned about issues such as media attention or payment
for health care or property damage. You can help relieve some of their
anxiety by telling victims what to expect in the aftermath of the crime.
This will also help prepare them for upcoming stressful events and changes
in their lives. You can respond to victims' need to know about what comes
next after their victimization by following these guidelines:
Briefly explain law enforcement procedures for tasks
such as the filing of your report, the investigation of the crime,
and the arrest and arraignment of a suspect.
Tell victims about subsequent law enforcement interviews
or other kinds of interviews they can expect.
Discuss the general nature of medical forensic examinations
the victim will be asked to undergo and the importance of these examinations
for law enforcement.
Explain what specific information from the crime report
will be available to news organizations. Discuss the likelihood of
the media releasing any of this information.
Counsel victims that lapses of concentration, memory
losses, depression, and physical ailments are normal reactions for
crime victims. Encourage them to reestablish their normal routines
as quickly as possible to help speed their recovery.
Give victims a pamphlet listing resources available
for help and information. This pamphlet should include contact information
for local crisis intervention centers and support groups; the prosecutor's
office and the victim-witness assistance office; the State victim
compensation/assistance office; and other nationwide services, including
Ask victims whether they have any questions. Encourage
victims to contact you if you can be of further assistance.