A Twin Cities area sexual assault advocate and a U.S. senator from Minnesota are working together on a bill to improve interactions between victims of sexual assault and the police.
The bill, the product of a partnership between recent University of Minnesota graduate Abby Honold and Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., would award grants to police departments that undergo trauma-informed training to share best practices for initial interviews of sex assault victims.
Honold — who fought for a conviction for her rapist, former University student Daniel Drill-Mellum, while pursuing her undergraduate degree — said her first interview with police after the rape was damaging.
“I had a really rough experience with the police and I think some of it, of course, was a lot of very purposeful victim blaming... but I think also a large percentage of it was that they simply didn’t understand how victims of sexual assault respond, how trauma affects the brain,” Honold said.
She doesn’t know if officials would have had enough information to prosecute Drill-Mellum if her forensic nurse hadn’t used a sensory form of questioning called a Forensic Experiential Trauma Interview, which the bill could provide training for.
While police officers traditionally receive lots of training on how to gather as much information as possible from victims and suspects, these techniques can fail when used on victims who have recently undergone significant trauma, said Gavin Grivna, assistant director of The Aurora Center.
“When it comes to survivors of sexual assault and sexual violence, there is a trauma associated with what has happened to them, and that trauma has an impact on their ability to recall memories in a chronological way,” Grivna said.
Grivna said trauma affects a victim’s neurobiology and can make them recall events out of order, which sometimes leads investigators to think victims are lying. Asking questions related to sensory input can help victims better remember what happened, allowing officials to collect the best possible evidence, he said.
Some police departments statewide, like the University of Minnesota Police Department, already provide trauma-informed interviewing training for officers.
Between 60 and 70 UMPD officers underwent trauma-informed training in June, said Chief Matt Clark. At the training, officers learned how to conduct Forensic Experiential Trauma Interviews.
“We want to be sure that, as best we can, we can be at the cutting edge and the forefront of how to best deal with victims and with trauma,” Clark said.
Honold reached out to Franken’s office about a year ago. Her rapist had interned for the senator, which she saw as an opening to discuss sexual assault and police training.
“I was really happy... they let me sit and talk to them about what I wanted to be different in the world, and an actual piece of legislation came out of it,” Honold said.
At the University, Clark said the UMPD has been working with the Aurora Center and other organizations to make sure they have the best possible training and resources to deal with sexual assault.
“We recognize that, across university campuses, sexual assault, victimization and underreporting are issues, and we’ve been pushing pretty hard… sending out the information that we really want victims to come forward,” Clark said.
The language of the federal bill is almost finalized and will likely be introduced in November. The Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault also has a similar Minnesota-specific pilot program underway, Honold said.