Webinar presenter Katharine Manning answered a number of your questions after her presentation, Victim Rights: What Law Enforcement Officers Need to Know. Here are just a few of her responses.
Audience Question: Our first question is right at the heart of this issue, Westmont is stating I am a domestic violence and sexual assault advocate of 15 years. The common complaint that I received from victims is that law enforcement can often victim blame and lack empathy. What are some suggestions you might be able to share to help improve their approach towards victims?
Katharine Manning: That’s such a great question. Unfortunately, it is something that we see commonly, not universally, there are phenomenal, just really incredible law enforcement officers out there who are doing just really outstanding work on behalf of victims and have a very victim-centered and trauma-informed approach. If you can get training for law enforcement, I think it is worthwhile for them to receive training on being trauma-informed. There is a great trainer that I know of if you just go to beingti.com. Chris Wilson does fantastic training for law enforcement officers, on being trauma-informed. I honestly think that it is also helpful for them just to understand, a little bit more of the victim’s perspective if they can read some of it. Sometimes, people will feel uncomfortable attending a whole training, or they don’t want to confront these issues in front of their colleagues, but there are some really phenomenal resources out there. I just finished reading Chanel Miller’s book Know My Name, in which she was involved in the Stanford sexual assault case with the diver. Her memoir is just so beautifully written and I think does such a good job of expressing what it’s like for a survivor of sexual assault to go through an investigation. She had tremendous support from the law enforcement officers there. She’s so good at explaining what the experience was like and I think that would really help law enforcement officers to get to see that perspective. There are a lot of other types of media like books. There are The Hunting Ground and other kinds of movies, as well. I think in a lot of ways, it’s just about building empathy and in order to do that, it helps to hear victim perspectives. RAINN, the national organization rainn.org has a victim or a speaker series of survivors who will share their stories. They also have a lot of stories on their website. I do think that the key to helping those who work with survivors to keep up their empathy and avoid victim-blaming is to just hear those perspectives more often. I think, in some ways, it’s easier when it’s not the case that you’re involved in, right? So, I hope that that gives you some ideas. If you want, feel free to reach out to me and we can brainstorm some more. Because I agree. This is an issue that is, is incredibly important, and it’s one that’s near and dear to my heart, as well.
Audience Question: Absolutely. Jenny sent in a message that I thought was kind of interesting. What Jenny says is some of my favorite investigators would start the interview by setting the tone that their questions are not to intimidate or question the victim’s actions but to gain insight into the crime. I’m just wondering if sometimes it’s misinterpreted based on some of the questions that they ask.
Katharine Manning: Yeah, absolutely. I think victim-blame is a really hard thing because often victims are blaming themselves as well. Even if you have an officer who is really not intending to blame the victim, sometimes the way that they phrase a question can come across as blaming. There are things that you just have to ask. Were you under the influence of alcohol or drugs? That’s an important question for a law enforcement officer to ask and for some individual survivors that can feel very blaming. So, I think it’s a good idea to start off with, some introductory remarks like that. Like, “Please understand that when I’m asking these questions, I am not at all implying that you are at fault. I’m so sorry about everything you’ve been through. My role is I have to investigate the crime because I really want to figure out who did this and make sure that this person is held to account for it and there is some information that I have to get from you for that purpose. So that’s why I’m asking that.” Then also empower the victims to take a break, if they need to. “If you want to take a break, just let me know.” It’s generally good to give them as much choice as possible. So, do you want a drink of water? Do you want the door open or closed? All of those things demonstrate that you are safe, that you are somebody who is not a threat to them. All of those things will make them more able to communicate about their experience. It just makes you a better investigator.
Audience Question: Are there rights associated with victim rights when a victim is either missing or murdered? In other words, what are the families of victims entitled to know in an investigation?
Katharine Manning: Yeah, absolutely. Thanks for that question. Sure. So, if who we think of, as the primary victim is deceased or is missing, others can step in the shoes of that victim and assert rights in the case. So, if you have a homicide, for instance, family members are entitled to rights, in that case, and they should be receiving updates on the status of the investigation, services, including, crime victims’ compensation. All of those things should be accessible to family members, as well. I should clarify, I talked a little bit about child victims, but others can step in the shoes of victims if they are incompetent or incapacitated. Say you have a victim who was in a coma. The victim is right there but the victim is not able to assert any rights on his or her behalf. So, in that instance, you would have an alternative, usually a family member who is able to receive rights on behalf of that victim. Yeah, Absolutely. Thank you. Good question.
Audience Question: How about the issue with the domestic violence agency wanting copies of the full offense report for the victim to assist with services? Our City Assistant Attorney really resists against releasing these due to also having the suspect and their family also having access to the report. So, what are your thoughts regarding access to the offense report and victim privacy?
Katharine Manning: Yeah, that’s a hard question. Something that an issue that I worked on a lot at DOJ was this question about what information can be released? I know from my time at DOJ that there are sometimes statutory requirements, statutory bars on releasing information at least within the federal system. There is a Federal Privacy Act. What it says, is that any document that the federal government is holding that pertains to a particular individual, that individual has a Privacy Act interest in it. For instance, the police report, or in the federal government was called the 302. The 302 is related to this particular defendant and therefore, this particular defendant has the Privacy Act right in it. So, we would have instances where a victim maybe doesn’t know the details of the assault against him or her. It’s in the 302 and we were not allowed to release it without the Defendants’ permission. It was incredibly frustrating because one of the things that are so important to victims is that access to information, both for their own peace of mind and healing. And as you’re pointing out, that sometimes it’s essential in terms of the services that they are going to be provided or have access to. I guess, my best advice on that is to try to maintain good lines of communication with the law enforcement agency so that they understand what it is that you’re looking for. It may be that they can release a redacted version of it, or they could do some sort of affidavit from an officer that will give you the information that you need without going afoul of whatever their requirements are. I think, just reminding everybody of the larger goal here which is we want to make sure that the victim is able to heal from the effect of the crime. So, let’s keep our eyes on that and figure out a way to work together to get to that result.
Audience Question: Tammy is asking if you could provide some more information about victim rights in Virginia. I know we probably don’t have enough time to do that but I am wondering, are there are websites, are there locate resources that you can recommend online that kind of summarize victim rights on a state by state basis?
Katharine Manning: Yeah, absolutely. The best place to go is victimlaw.org. That’ll give you a link directly to Virginia’s laws. In addition, the National Crime Victim Law Institute has a particular page for each state. So, you could search Virginia victim rights on ncvli.org. It’ll give you some information about the rights that are available in Virginia. They do vary a lot, state by state. I have. I’ve sort of puzzled with how to address this issue, as part of me thinks I should just do like round-robin around, like, I’m going to do all the East Coast or New England, and then I’m going to do the south-east or something. Because they are, they do vary a lot state by state, and I wish that I could give kind of specifics for particular jurisdictions. So far, I haven’t figured out how to, how to do that in a way that makes sense.
Audience Question: Jenny also suggested that you can reach out to the Virginia Victim’s Assistance Network as well that they are a great resource have specialized working groups on victim rights.
Katharine Manning: Thank you, Jenny. That’s one of the things I love about doing these webinars is that I feel like I’m up here kind of giving information but you guys all have just a wealth of information as well. So, I love it when people chime in like that.
Audience Question: Is there any mechanism to allow a victim to appeal for victim rights if they are previously deemed ineligible? For example, if they were coerced into participating in a crime that may have resulted in taking away their rights.
Katharine Manning: Interesting. Yeah, that’s a complicated question. So, I didn’t really get into this issue in this webinar, but what this turns on is this question of enforcement. So, in some jurisdictions, victims have not just the list of rights, but they also have the ability to enforce their rights. So, they’re allowed to go into court and say, Your Honor, I have a right to be heard before you accept that plea or before you sentence the defendant or something like that. I have a right to be present at this trial, I have a right to receive notices in this case. In other jurisdictions, there’s no enforcement at all, So it just says, it’s this right here on paper, but there’s no way there’s no mechanism for a victim to challenge when the right is denied. So, if you are in a state where there is enforcement, which generally is like you can file a motion in court, then you could go in and say, Your Honor, I’m not receiving my rights in this case. Then the government would say, oh well, that’s because I think that this person is culpable and then the victim has the opportunity to respond and say I’m not culpable, and here’s why. And then, the Court decides it. If you’re in a jurisdiction where there’s no enforcement mechanism, there’s kind of no way to even challenge that. I mean, you can go back to the law enforcement officer to the District Attorney’s Office and say, you are misinterpreting in this and I want to give you more information but if you don’t have any kind of enforcement mechanism, you can’t appeal their decision. You can’t go to the Court and challenge that. So, it’s really hard, and it does turn on this question of the enforceability of the victim’s right and that varies a lot state by state.
Click Here to Watch a Recording of Victim Rights: What Law Enforcement Officers Need to Know.