In-Service Course: Department’s partnership course with Women’s Center is shedding new light on the effects of trauma on sexual assault/family violence victims

Tom Kennedy

A new term has emerged in HPD’s stepped-up efforts to effect improvements in the investigation of sexual assault and family violence cases. The term: the neurobiology of trauma(.)

The Department has an ongoing in-service class to foster officers’ improved understanding about what is happening and how investigators can better handle these types of investigations.

When an individual is sexually assaulted, for instance:

“The brain goes into survival mode,” one instructor, Lisa Levine, explained. “The stress hormones in the brain affect memory and rational thought and decision-making.

“Consequently, trauma memory is not recorded and stored in a linear fashion. Instead, memories of the trauma are encoded and stored as sensory images or information. The memories are scattered rather than stored in orderly sequence.

“This makes it difficult for trauma survivors to recall the event in proper order, context and sequence.”

The purpose of the in-service course is to increase investigator awareness of this condition and how to better conduct interviews and investigations with traumatized family violence and sexual assault victims.

One of the course instructors, Sgt. Melissa Holbrook of the HPD Special Victims Division, uses neurobiology to outline why and how it accounts for  a victims’ tendency to change her story, not readily remember crucial details or become rattled and sometimes just flat refuses to cooperate.

Holbrook believes these circumstances often lead investigators in the wrong direction. With a better understanding of what’s taking place in the victim’s brain, officers should be better able to process an effective investigation.

One might say that it ain’t brain surgery but only because there is no operation on a table.

The in-service neurobiology course is co-sponsored by the Houston Area Women’s Center (HAWC) in a promising new partnership between HPD and HAWC initiated by Capt. Dana Hitzman, former head of the Special Victims Division.

Holbrook and Levine, one of Holbrook’s course co-authors and the clinical director at HAWC, take great pains to keep the definition and ramifications of neurobiology as simple as possible for easy understanding. They also use real cases to make key points and quote national experts.

 

Definition: Neurobiology — the study of cells of the nervous system and the organization of these cells into functional circuits that process information and mediate behavior.

 

In the course, Holbrook points out the way the brain works in the aftermath of trauma makes it more difficult to answer investigators’ detailed questions about “what happened?”

“In times of danger,” she said, “the brain stops filing memories and stops us from feeling pain. These brain emanations are the body’s clever way of protecting us.”

Again, to put it as simply as possible: The flood of stress hormones in the brain cells (take out cells – it is too scientific – leave it just “in the brain”) in the wake of trauma cause the hippocampus to stop filing memories. Because this part of the brain goes “off-line,” the victim just may not be able to remember details of the event.

Levine said, “These memories are jumbled up in the brain. The victim may not be able to be able to put them in logical sequence” while she is being asked for details in the initial interview.

As time passes, the brain returns to normal, freer of the influx of survival hormones that prompt confusion.

Holbrook, a veteran investigator, emphasized the importance of patience and common sense in the early stages of the investigative process. To ignore the neurobiology in the investigative equation will likely result in faulty judgement of the victim’s credibility, thus leading down the wrong trails in the compilation of a case file.

The investigator’s tendency should not be to press for details, for in the post-traumatic stress period the victim might well provide the wrong answers to key questions.

Holbrook said when a victim is traumatized there is bound to be inconsistencies in the interview. The point she and Levine underscore is that being traumatized and not remembering details should be considered “normal” by investigators.

“When you ask somebody traumatized, ask about sensory fragments,” she explained. “This is not the right person to be asking chronological questions in the context of being a sexual assault survivor.”

Instead of pressing for details, a more relaxed, open-ended approach will work better. “I would say, ‘What can you tell me about what happened to you?’ It’s a non-threatening, open-ended question that allows the victim to fell as relaxed as she can be under the circumstances.”

An apt follow-up might be: “What else do you remember?”

Victims may behave in ways that seem counterintuitive to investigators (that is, zoning out, showing little or no emotion, shifting emotional displays quickly, verbally attacking the officer, etc.). This neurobiology course teaches that these reactions – instead of reigning as the bane of the job that somebody has to do – should be, in essence, “normal.”

This special in-service course gets down to the specifics about how trauma affects not just the sexual assault victims of all genders but also family violence victims. Capt. Dana Hitzman, former head of the Special Victims Division and now head of the Clear Lake Division, said neurobiology courses are trending in law enforcement agencies across the country.

It was Hitzman’s suggestion that the in-service course be a requirement of every HPD officer.

The course has attracted other law enforcement agencies far beyond the Houston area. Holbrook and Levine recently conducted a class for other agencies from surrounding areas. They both stay excited about the HPD/HAWC partnership and believe these ongoing efforts will result in improved investigations and getting the bad actors off the streets at a steadier rate – with less risk of re=victimizing the complainant.