Training used by detectives in the Sexual Assault Unit of the Hamilton Police Service

Understanding the trauma victim’s brain is a step forward in dealing with sexual assault cases.

“I’m sorry this happened to you. I want to help you.”

Using such words to begin interviews of sexual assault survivors signals a new era for Hamilton police investigators, and has some feeling hopeful that victims will be better served.

That simple expression of compassion by detectives is a step toward incorporating the “neurobiology of trauma” into training and techniques used by detectives in the Sexual Assault Unit (SAU) of the Hamilton Police Service.

There is so much to learn from the emerging science of how the brain functions during and after trauma that police have been training all officers and 911 call takers.

“This is about understanding our wiring when we are under threat,” says Diana Tikasz, co-ordinator of the Sexual Assault/Domestic Violence Care Centre at Hamilton Health Sciences. “It is about how behavior looks and how memory is affected when we feel unsafe.”

The neurobiology of trauma was on the radar of Hamilton police as far back as 2015, when they first invited Tikasz to speak to them about the issue. By 2016, police were studying the Philadelphia Model of a community committee in Philadelphia reviewing their police service’s sexual assault investigations.

It all came to the front burner in February 2017 when The Globe and Mail published its investigative series Unfounded, which reported that police in Canada were routinely dismissing sexual assault allegations as unfounded when they shouldn’t have been.

Hamilton police took that opportunity to figure out how they went wrong and pledged to do better.

They brought a unique community group together to review its sexual assault complaints and recently released a report that concluded 70 per cent of Hamilton cases dismissed as unfounded from 2010 to 2016 should not have been closed.

That number reflects what some women in the community have been saying for years.

Using suspect tactics on victims is part of the problem.

“We shouldn’t be interrogating victims,” says Staff Sgt. Dave Dunbar, who oversees the Sexual Assault Unit. “We need to be patient.”

He and Susan Double, Victim Services administrator, say during training sessions on the neurobiology of trauma, they could see even veteran officers nodding their heads. This new perspective made sense.

Science shows trauma causes hormones to surge through a victim’s body for 96 hours after the event, creating a “survival brain” and activating the “fright, flight and freeze response,” explains Tikasz, who teaches this to police, Crown attorneys and judges across Canada.

That can cause victims to stay put, even when there is a chance to escape. This “freeze” is particularly true for those who have experienced a similar trauma before. It is a behavior that may seem “odd or confusing” to others, says Tikasz. It can lead police to question the victim’s story. Perhaps worse, when a victim’s brain returns to normal, they often don’t understand their own inability to act, and so they blame themselves for being victimized.

Hormones can also cause them to have an emotional reaction that seems inappropriate. Tikasz has seen victims laugh after a trauma, which can lead police to think the event “couldn’t be that bad.”

Hormones can also cause them to remember some details of the trauma (their attacker’s tattoo), but have no recollection of others (what color the attacker’s shirt was).

And it may mean their memories are jumbled.

Tikasz likens it to writing each detail of a trauma on a separate sticky note, then dumping them into a pile and having to sort it all.

All this has been intuitively known to victim services workers for years. But now that there is science to back it up, police are learning how to interview victims more effectively.

In May 2017, Hamilton introduced an online reporting process for sexual assault victims, a first in Ontario. This allows victims a way into the system without having to physically come into a police station or talk to a front-line officer, scenarios that can be intimidating and uncomfortable. So far, 65 victims have reported online, contributing to the highest annual reporting rate of sexual assaults in the service’s history.

An ongoing pilot project also has victims meeting first with victim services before being interviewed by a detective. Victim services identifies if there are vulnerabilities needing to be addressed: a victim who is developmentally delayed, or who has an addiction issue, for example. The victim services worker is available to sit in on the interview, if the victim wishes their support.

The actual interview now begins with a detective saying they are sorry the victim is hurting.

Genuinely caring about victims, making them feel safe and heard will help “support the retrieval of memory,” according to Tikasz by reducing the flow of hormones that inhibits the recollection of trauma details.

Detectives are traditionally trained to have people “start at the beginning” when conducting interviews. But for survivors of trauma, chronology is difficult and memories are fragmented.

“Tell me what you remember,” allows a victim to recall their story in a way their brain can handle.

Memory can be strongly linked to smell and sound, so investigators are encouraged to ask questions about those senses.

Double says these are “baby steps” and acknowledges that to really effect change, the court system must also incorporate the neurobiology of trauma into the way, for instance, that Crowns examine victims on the witness stand.

Tikasz says in her 30 years in trauma therapy “I have never been as hopeful as I am right now.”

“I think it is hopeful,” agrees Double. “It’s an epiphany that we’ve all had an opportunity for us to really change things and do a better job.”

“Everyone is learning how to be better,” says Dunbar. “And eventually, everybody’s going to be on board.”