Handling Victims with Care

Handling Victims with Care

People who bring their problems to a police station expect procedural justice. They want officers and detectives to listen to them without bias as they explain their situation. They anticipate that the police will be sensitive and polite, treat them with

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dignity, respect their rights, and make decisions in an open and transparent manner (see Murphy and Barkworth, 2014).

In the aftermath of a street crime, victims are likely to feel powerless, disoriented, and infuriated. Fear, guilt, depression, and revenge fantasies engulf them. They expect authority figures to calm and console them, to help them restore their sense of equilibrium, and dispel lingering feelings of help- lessness. After the first injury inflicted by the crimi- nal, victims are particularly susceptible to a second wound. If officers unwittingly make them feel worse by being dismissive or callous, they will feel rejected and betrayed by those they counted on for support (Symonds, 1980b; and Ogawa, 1999).

Studies of police work suggest that what vic- tims are encountering is the protective coating of emotional detachment that officers develop to shield themselves from becoming overwhelmed by the misery they routinely see around them. If officers appear unmoved, distant, and disinter- ested, it might be that they fear “contamination” (Symonds, 1975). Such “distancing” is a defense mechanism and is part of a “working personality” officers must develop because of the constant potential for danger in a hostile environment and the need to maintain objectivity in the face of complicated situations and conflicting witness accounts. A frighteningly unusual event for the victim can be a rather unexceptional incident for a seasoned officer (Ready, Weisburd, and Farrell, 2002). To avoid burnout, law enforcement offi- cers (like others in helping professions) sense that they must inhibit their impulses to get emotion- ally involved in their cases. The paramilitary nature of police organizations and the bureau- cratic imperatives of specialization and standardi- zation reinforce their inclinations to deal with tragedies as impersonally as possible. In addition, the “macho” norms of police subculture—with its emphasis on toughness, camaraderie, suspicion of outsiders, insider jokes, graveyard humor, and profound cynicism—put pressure on members of law enforcement agencies to act businesslike when dealing with profoundly upsetting situations (Ahrens, Stein, and Young, 1980).

Many departments have initiated training pro- grams to prepare at least a portion of their force to act sensitively when they deal with victims with acute needs. Officers and detectives are taught how to administer “psychological first aid” to peo- ple in distress. They are instructed to respond swiftly, listen attentively, show concern, and refrain from challenging the victims’ versions of events or judging the wisdom of their reactions while the crime was in progress. Officers are told to not show any skepticism when a rape victim is not badly bruised or bleeding, a child did not report molestation immediately, an elderly person has trouble communicating, or a blind person offers to assist with the identification of a suspect. At the conclusion of training sessions, officers should be informed that responsiveness to victims carries a high priority within the department and has become a criterion for evaluating performance and a consideration in granting promotions (Symonds, 1980b; President’s Task Force, 1982; National Sheriffs’ Association, 1999). By 2000, more than 70 percent of all big-city police departments (serv- ing more than 250,000 residents) had set up special victim assistance units, and more than 90 percent had officers on call who were trained to handle cases of child abuse, missing children, and domestic violence (Reaves and Hickman, 2002).

One of the most emotionally draining tasks in police work is notifying the next of kin of people who have been murdered. Anecdotal evidence indicates that many officers are inept at delivering bad news in plain language and with compassion. To rectify this problem, some departments have developed guidelines and manuals so that survivors are not further traumatized by disturbing memories of clumsy and uncaring behavior by officers carry- ing out these most unpleasant death notification obligations (Associated Press, 1994d).

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