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
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 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 guidelines:
- 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, Youre safe now or Im here
now. Use body language to show concern, such as nodding your head,
using natural eye contact, placing yourself at the victims level
rather than standing over seated victims, keeping an open stance rather
than crossing your arms, and speaking in a calm, sympathetic voice.
- 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
- Offer to contact a family member, friend, or crisis counselor for
- 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.
- Assure victims of the confidentiality of their comments whenever possible.
- Ask victims about any special concerns or needs they may have.
- 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 prosecutors
office and the victim-witness assistance office; the state victim compensation/assistance
office; and other nationwide services, including toll-free hotlines.
- Give victimsin 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 dont 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: Youve
been through something very frightening. Im sorry; What
youre feeling is completely normal; and This was a
terrible crime. Im sorry it happened to you.
- Counter any self-blame by victims by saying things such as, You
didnt 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 dont think its 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
- Show that you are actively listening to victims through your facial
expressions, body language, and comments such as Take your time;
Im listening and We can take a break if you like.
Im in no hurry.
- Avoid interrupting victims while they are telling their story.
- Repeat or rephrase what you think you heard the victims say. For example,
Lets 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
- 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 prosecutors office and the victim-witness
assistance office; the state victim compensation/assistance office;
and other nationwide services, including toll-free hotlines.
- Ask victims whether they have any questions. Encourage victims to
contact you if you can be of further assistance.
|First Response to Victims of Crime