Using Science to Increase Effectiveness of Sexual Assault Investigations

DNA testing

Multiple forces are converging to put increasing pressure on law enforcement to ramp up the effectiveness of sexual assault investigations. There is a growing awareness and concern about the scourge of sexual violence, and that concern is reflected in increased scrutiny from the media, politicians, and ordinary citizens. The U.S. military has experienced this intense scrutiny for more than a decade; colleges and universities are now under the same spotlight; and there are growing signs that the civilian criminal justice system is next in line. The current focus on untested rape kits is likely just the first chapter in what will be a long-term focus on how the civilian criminal justice system responds to rape and sexual assault.

Fortunately, as law enforcement looks to ramp up its effectiveness, it can draw from a substantial body of scientific research on both sexual victimization and sexual offending. This research yields direct applications for the investigation of sexual assault cases. In particular, it addresses (1) the importance of treating victims of sexual violence with respect and compassion (without relinquishing neutrality); (2) the particular nature of traumatic memory and, therefore, specific methods for interviewing trauma victims; and (3) the dynamics of sexual offending and specific avenues for investigating suspects.