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Officers get crash course in what the brain does during a sexual assault

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LOGAN, Utah (News4Utah) – In a large conference room at the Cache County Sheriff’s Office, about twenty officers and first responders piled in to hear a presentation on sexual assault response. 

What they got was a crash course in neurobiology. 

One in six women experiences rape or attempted rape in the United States; One in 32 men experience the same. Often, cases can be difficult in the initial stages of investigation; inconsistent victim accounts, lack of evidence and other factors can hinder an investigation. 

No matter the outcome, trauma experts say it’s important police “start by believing” survivors of alleged sex assault. 

“This is an interesting time,” said Marlesse Jones, the sex assault prosecutor who trained the officers in Logan Wednesday. “It’s the first time in the history of humanity that women are being believed when they are making allegations of a [sex] crime occurring.” She alluded to the “Me Too” movement and the national conversation happening about sexual violence. 

There’s still a lack of understanding around consent, Jones said. Law enforcement officers have struggled with that concept – and others – in the past, she added. Still, the state-mandated offering of a sex assault response training to law enforcement agencies can help prevent failures, Jones said. 

In 2017, a law was passed which required the Utah Prosecutors Council (which with Jones is affiliated) to offer training to law enforcement officers on initial responses to sexual assault allegations. Agencies are not necessarily required to participate, but they are required to be given the chance. 

Police who attended said it’s important for all first responders to receive this training. 

“It’s invaluable,” said North Park Interim Police Chief Steve Milne. “There was no training [when I started].” Milne began his law enforcement career 35 years ago, before DNA could prove or disprove sexual assault accusations. 

Because of a general lack of understanding around consent and the brain’s response to physical attack, Milne said he may have made mistakes. 

“I was one of those officers that because of misinformation, probably did a poor job,” he said. He said he’s grateful for trauma-informed training which is helping him and his officers offer vital support to survivors. 

The training focused on media myths regarding sexual violence, including the fact that many survivors don’t have physical injuries when they report. In the past, Jones said, that has caused officers to be incredulous of victims. 

“There’s a lot of damage that does get done to victims based on how we handle that initial contact,” Jones said. “Now with this additional information on trauma, [law enforcement is] able to see these cases differently, in a way that strengthens our ability to prosecute.”

THE HUMAN BRAIN AND TRAUMA: WHEN ‘FIGHT, FLIGHT OR FREEZE’ TAKES OVER

Much of Jones’ training included science-backed facts on the human brain. 

When the brain senses physical danger, the amygdala – or the part of the brain that keeps us alive and triggers immediate muscle responses and emotional reactions – activates and takes over the cortex, which is the rational part of the brain. 

Because of this, during an attack victims have essentially have little to no control over how the body responds. Victims either fight, flee or freeze, Jones said. 

Jones also told officers a victim may give inconsistent accounts because of trauma. 

Jones said the brain does not process the memory of the attack until after the first sleep cycle, Jones said. Even then, survivors only remember or process about 50 percent of it. It’s after the second sleep cycle that the attack becomes 90 percent clear in the mind of a victim. Because of this, reporting sometimes does not occur until two days after an attack, making cases difficult to investigate due to lack of physical evidence and a viable rape kit. 

HELPING VICTIMS HEAL

A former 911 dispatcher-turned-prosecutor, Jones has dealt with sex crime trauma victims for more than twenty years. She knows firsthand the thin ice responders are on when dealing with survivors.

She says no matter the potential problems with a case, officers should “start by believing” and compassionately listening. 

“Studies show that that will help the victim move past the trauma and move forward in their healing process more than anything else,” said Jones. 

For more information on Utah Prosecutors Council, click here

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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