Evolution in understanding: Law enforcement agencies embrace trauma-informed approach when investigating, prosecuting sexual assault cases
Editor’s note: This story is the third of an eight-week series focused on the issue of sexual assault in Steamboat Springs and Routt County. To view the entire series as it unfolds, visit SteamboatPilot.com/news/in-our-shoes.
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Detective Sam Silva is soft spoken, and his eyes are kind. His smile is reassuring, shattering any preconceived notions someone might have of cynical, tough-talking cops who batter witnesses with a barrage of questions to get to the truth.
Over the past few years, Silva has come to specialize in investigating sexual assault cases for the Steamboat Springs Police Department. In particular, he has received extensive training in how to conduct more effective and empathetic victim interviews — an approach that is often referred to as trauma-informed interviewing.
He said he strives to make sure survivors of sexual assault are not re-victimized during the interview process.
“If you come forward, I can promise that you’ll be met with understanding, caring and an open mind,” Silva said. “We still stay fair and objective and seek the truth, but we do that without negatively impacting the victim.
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“Our primary job is to gather facts about the case, and we begin by objectively believing the victim,” Silva said.
Silva gained valuable experience in how to interview victims of sexual assault several years ago when he was the lead investigator for the Miguel Diaz-Martinez case, which dominated his life for 18 months.
Diaz-Martinez was charged in November 2016 with 41 felonies and accused of exchanging drugs for sex with underage girls. In February 2018, the 61-year-old Steamboat man pleaded guilty to three counts of human trafficking for sexual servitude, five counts of trafficking of minors for sexual servitude and one count of attempted sexual assault, and he received a 50-year prison sentence.
The case involved more than 12 victims, and Silva interviewed each of them.
“I spent so much time interviewing victims, and I got so much experience,” Silva said. “That case motivated me, and I now end up handling a lot of the sexual assault cases for our department.”
In the first five months of 2019, Silva has investigated 11 reports of sexual assault in Steamboat. That number puts the department on pace to surpass last year’s total of 22 sexual assaults reported locally.
“The trend of trauma-informed interviewing is a national trend for a lot of police departments, and it’s definitely a focus of ours,” Silva said. “And I’m not the only officer trained in this.”
New approach to investigating sexual assault
Silva began his training by completing a FETI course. FETI stands for forensic experiential trauma interview, which teaches officers a science-based methodology for conducting effective victim interviews. FETI is designed to teach officers the neurobiology and science involved in trauma memory and shows them how to apply that knowledge during an interview.
This approach encourages officers to allow the survivor to set the pace and direction of the interview, which is a change from the way officers have traditionally interviewed victims. Using their FETI training, officers begin the interview by connecting with the victim through genuine empathy, letting the victim share their story and then following up with open-ended, nonleading questions.
“These courses deal with memory recall versus the old style of interviewing, which was question after question,” Silva said. “I learned to let them (the survivors) tell the story and not interrupt them and to focus on the welfare of the victim.”
Silva went on to become an instructor and now provides training on trauma-informed interviewing to his fellow police officers.
“Sam embodies our approach, which is to be compassionate and understanding,” said Steamboat Police Chief Cory Christensen. “One of the challenges is it takes experience to get better at it, and every time Sam approaches a case, he’s learned something.”
TJ Sisto, a detective with the Routt County Sheriff’s Office, also has received extensive training in the area of trauma-based interviewing. He and Tom Munden investigate sexual assault cases, and both have been trained in the FETI method of conducting interviews.
Sisto said he also has attended conferences offered by EVAWI — End Violence Against Women Internationally — and the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
“We’ve been taught to use a victim-centered approach,” said Sisto, who started with the Sheriff’s Office in 2005 and graduated from the Police Academy in 2007. “Our goal is really just to treat this person with dignity and respect, and whenever possible, we meet this reporting person’s wishes.”
Sisto said this method of interviewing begins with the acknowledgement that the person who is reporting the sexual assault has experienced a high-level trauma.
“As I interview, I have in the back of my mind that I need to conduct my interview in a manner that respects this person’s trauma,” Sisto said. “The very nature of the interview is re-traumatizing, so we try to minimize that.”
Sisto explained that it’s common for a person recovering from a traumatic event to not remember everything, especially right after the incident occurs.
“In the past, victims were often treated with suspicion because they weren’t remembering everything,” Sisto said. “We now realize that that person has experienced a traumatic event, which affects their memory.”
Sisto’s interest in learning more about conducting an effective interview with victims of trauma stemmed from the John Brothers, Jr., case. The former Christian school teacher and pastor was accused of molesting a 12-year-old boy eight times in 2007. A Routt County jury found Brothers guilty of sexual assault on a child in 2014, and he was sentenced to 20 years to life in prison.
“The Brothers case was the biggest case I had ever dealt with, and I was very new as a detective,” Sisto said. “As I went through that investigation, I was exposed to a lot of challenges on how to effectively conduct an interview. I wanted specific training that spoke directly to sexual assault cases.”
Staff members with the District Attorney’s Office are also trained on neuro trauma.
District Attorney Matt Karzen said that training has influenced how his office works with victims of sexual assault.
“The science tells us how we interact with them matters, both to them emotionally and to the preparation of the case for prosecution,” Karzen said. “Probably the two main things we focus on are: 1) avoiding asking the victim to relive the trauma multiple times … and 2) making sure they feel safe during the prosecution of the case.”
Karzen said one of his main goals is to treat victims with the dignity and respect they deserve while also being honest with them about the challenging nature of a criminal prosecution. This “candor” as Karzen describes it, helps victims set healthy expectations and makes them feel supported.
“Helping them understand the process, in my experience, helps them deal with the fear,” Karzen said. “One of the most critical things we emphasize is that when a victim testifies, the judge is there to ensure they are treated with respect and dignity, and we — DAs — are there to trigger that protection with appropriate objections and evidentiary motions.”
The interview process
Interviewing a sexual assault survivor can take anywhere from 30 minutes to three or four hours, Silva said.
“It’s really depends on what they want to tell you,” Silva said. “It’s up to them. They are totally in control of the interview, and they can stop at any time. I try to make them feel as empowered as possible during the reporting process.”
In Our Shoes is an eight-part series about sexual assault in Steamboat Springs and Routt County published by the Steamboat Pilot every Wednesday, from June 5 to July 24.
When a survivor wants to report a sexual assault, they can report directly to the police or they can go through Advocates of Routt County. They can also go to the hospital and report there. Law enforcement officers will go wherever they are needed to begin the reporting process — the survivor’s home, the hospital or victims can come directly to the Police Department.
Child victims of sexual assault are interviewed at a specialized facility in Glenwood Springs or Denver by interviewers trained to deal with young survivors. Local detectives go to the interview with the children and observe the interview via video.
Both Silva and Sisto said they would encourage survivors to go to the hospital for a forensic exam as close to the time of the assault as possible. There is a detective on call 24 hours a day, and they can meet the victim at the hospital and interview them there to minimize the number of times the survivor has to re-tell what happened to them.
“The memories are traumatic and put them back in the situation, so if we can go to the hospital and do the interview along with the forensic exam, that’s the best,” Silva said.
The problem of under-reporting
Silva said very few cases are reported right after the assault happens, and many are never reported.
When asked why only a quarter of survivors ever report the assault to law enforcement, the detectives both talk about the demoralizing nature of the crime and fear of the system.
“My last victim’s case went to trial, and the jury acquitted the defendant,” Silva said. “She was asked on the stand, ‘Why didn’t you report immediately?’ and she answered, ‘because of this right here. I didn’t want to be on the witness stand and be on trial.”
And even though the woman didn’t get the verdict she’d hoped for, Silva said she was glad she came forward and reported.
“I don’t focus on winning or losing,” Silva said. “You won by coming forward. You worked through this process and came out stronger on the other side.”
Silva said survivors are also dealing with guilt and asking themselves, “Am I at fault?” Oftentimes, the perpetrator is not a stranger, which makes these cases more complex.
“It’s very painful for them; it’s very personal,” Silva said. “People don’t like to talk about their sex lives, but this is not about a sexual experience. It’s an assault.”
Hesitancy to report also can be due to the fact that the victim may have been drinking or doing drugs at the time of the assault or maybe they were underage and using a fake ID. In cases like this, local law enforcement agencies and the District Attorney’s Office have forged an informal agreement that a survivor won’t be charged with a lesser crime, like minor in possession, if they report.
“We have agreed to a certain level of immunity,” Christensen said. “We’re focused on the larger, more serious issue. I agree to this approach, and we already apply that philosophy. I’d much rather someone come and report then charge them with an MIP (minor in possession).”
The respect shown to victims is also offered to those accused of the crime of sexual assault. Both Sisto and Silva say they treat the suspect fairly because it’s their job to hear both sides and determine if there is enough evidence to prove a crime occurred.
“We start with believing the suspect as well,” Silva said.
Sisto hopes the change in how law enforcement interviews victims of sexual assault could result in more disclosures.
“I think it’s important to have a process in place for the members of our community who are victims or survivors of sexual assault to disclose and have a process in place to conduct an interview that provides that person with dignity and respect,” Sisto said. “Being part of that process is where my career has directed me.”
Christensen believes increased reporting will ultimately lead to fewer sexual assaults.
“I’d love for sexual assault to end in our community,” Christensen said. “If we become a place where these incidents are going to get reported on, where police are going to investigate them, that will be a deterrent.”
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