Considerations for investigations concerning the elderly victim
Officers and detectives can leverage resources designated for the elderly within local, state and federal government
There is a trend emerging in our society that requires our consideration and preparation. Some call it “the graying of America” while others call it “ageism” but no matter what you call it, law enforcement agencies need to recognize that the population in the United States is getting older and will continue to age at a rate that will challenge us to examine the current ways that we, as law enforcement, interact with the elderly.
While people 65 years and older currently comprise approximately 13 percent (40,243,713) of the U.S. population, according to United States Census Bureau predictions, that number will come close to doubling by the year 2030 (at which time that population is expected to be about 71.5 million).
What does the expanse of the elderly population mean for law enforcement? Well, for starters, it means that patrol officers will see a dramatic increase in calls for service related to the elderly. They will see an increase in calls for elder abuse, theft, traffic offenses, alcohol offenses, domestic violence, sex offenses, disorderly conduct, and sick, injured or deceased persons and still others, not mentioned here. As a result of the aging population growth, detectives or investigators will see an increase in the elderly as victims and perpetrators of crime.
Police agency standard operating procedures (as well as investigative techniques) may need to be reexamined or modified to properly approach this growing trend. Things like arrest procedures, prisoner transport processes, facility/housing accommodations, and interview and interrogation techniques may need attention, modification, or development. Specialized training may be needed to familiarize officers with some of the common problems associated with aging and some of the Federal mandates and protocols — such as the American Disabilities Act (ADA) or The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) — that are in place to protect the elderly and others. Officers and detectives will also need to familiarize themselves with resources designated for the elderly within local, state and federal government, such as the Department of Aging, Department of Social Services, or Adult Protective Services as well as those programs that are generally aimed toward helping victims of crime in order to best serve their communities.
Although, there is a lot to consider when examining the growing population of seniors in this country, I would like to focus on a few things that detectives or criminal investigators should consider when conducting a criminal investigation involving an elderly victim. For the purpose of this article I am considering an elderly victim anyone who is 65 years old or older.
Spectrum of Diminished Capacity
Unfortunately, with aging comes the potential loss or deterioration of certain faculties and attributes that the young often take for granted. It is the job of every detective or investigator to access and determine the physical condition and well being of their victim(s). With respect to the elderly, a detective will want most to determine a victim’s capacity to communicate effectively. Below are some of the challenges detectives or investigators may face when working with the elderly and some suggestions to meet those challenges. Depending on the specific age of your victim, he or she may fall within a wide spectrum of diminished capacity — from none at all to completely debilitated — so investigators need to be prepared to confront the later.
For example, your victim may have trouble hearing, requiring you to speak loudly or repeat yourself several times as you either ask questions or attempt to reassure them. Your victim may have difficulty speaking or otherwise communicating with you. In instances like this, it is best to find a close relative, friend, neighbor, nurse, care giver or someone who is most familiar with the communication skills and techniques used by the victim and whom can assist you so that you may efficiently and effectively obtain or provide as much information as possible.
Vision is another sense that may or may not show signs of diminishing capacity. In cases where your victim’s vision is limited, ask all of the same questions you normally would in order to obtain a detailed suspect, vehicle or weapon description. By doing this you achieve two things. First, although the suspect may not have been seen entirely by the victim, he or she may have seen enough to give you a tidbit of information that might be important to the investigation.
Second — and just as important — you show the victim the same time, attention, and dignity that you would a victim with their vision intact. Be sure to focus your questions and attention on other descriptors such as the speech or mannerisms of the suspect. Ask if the victim can recall what the suspect said (word for word if possible). Try to determine if there was anything unique about your suspect’s speech. For example, did the suspect stutter or talk with an accent?. Then direct your victim to the suspect’s mannerisms in an effort to determine if there are any unique characteristics that the victim can zero in on.
I recall working a vicious home invasion robbery case in which the lone suspect targeted and violently threw an 88-year-old female victim down a flight of stairs. She survived but had limited recall of the details of the incident. The one thing that stood out in her memory was that when the victim spoke to her, he kept his fingers near or in his mouth (similar to that of a nail biter). This particular suspect was caught after targeting another 80-year-old female victim and stealing her car. I sat down to interrogate the suspect, and as soon as he spoke his fingers went to his mouth, exactly as the first victim had described!
Another factor that detectives or investigators will need to contend with when questioning the elderly is memory loss. Some victims may exhibit only a slight memory loss where it may take them some time to recall the details of an incident. In cases like this, you may want to try questioning the victim twice. The purpose of the second time is to see if the victim remembers anything else and to determine if the answers are consistent with those originally given.
Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia are two common and unfortunate ailments that can affect a victim’s memory. When confronted with victim’s suffering from these ailments, it is possible to gather some pertinent case information if the victim is in the early stages of the disease process. If they are more advanced in the process then efforts may prove fruitless. In cases like this, it is best to get as much information as you can from the victim and consider preserving it either by capturing the information in a video/audio taped interview or in writing. Cases like this will require a detective or investigator to construct the case so that all the weight does not lie solely upon victim testimony. Emphasis will need to be placed elsewhere such as recovered physical evidence, video surveillance footage or the suspect’s interview/interrogation or confession.
Detectives and investigators also need to recognize the motivation and capacity of an elderly victim to try and deceive them. For example, false reports are something else to keep on your radar when it comes to the elderly victim. In some instances, the elderly become embarrassed by their own diminishing capacities. For example, if an elderly person were to lose their wallet due to memory loss, they may report it as theft or robbery rather than openly acknowledge they may have a problem. Or, if an elderly person falls and suffers an injury, they may want family to believe they were the victim of a random assault rather than confess some recent feelings of instability. No one looks forward to losing their independence and the elderly are no different — they too struggle with this loss and may go to great lengths to prolong or distance themselves from it.
An elderly victim may try to cover-up a crime or protect the perpetrator. In a domestic abuse case, for example, the elderly victim may attempt to attribute visible bruising to a recent fall instead of a recent beating by their spouse, significant other or child because the victim’s abuser may be the sole source of income for the household. Sending their abuser to prison may strike a chord of fear in the victim due to income or other dependency, not to mention the fear of retaliation.
Investigative Note About Bruising in the Elderly:
In 2009, the National Institute of Justice published article by Philip Bulman, Elder abuse emerges from the shadow of public consciousness, which highlighted research being conducted by Aileen Wigglesworth at the University of California (Irvine), where she studied bruising in the elderly. This gerontology study compared “normal” bruising patterns, from bumps or falls, to bruising patterns resulting from physical abuse and there were notable differences. When comparing the two types of injuries, the research indicated that abuse victims are more likely to have bruises on their head, neck, face, back and right arm.
The research specifically indicated that an “accidental” bruising was never found on the neck, ears, genitals, buttock, or soles of the feet.
Not all elderly victims are frail or disabled — some are the peak of health. Officers and detectives will make their assessments and determine the best approach to take when working with and serving the elderly victim. Detectives and investigators must be thinking about how to overcome some of the more challenging aspects of working with the elderly, specifically those who may have diminishing capacities. These suggestions mentioned are just some of the things detectives and investigators might consider — there are certainly others. In future articles I may address considerations when entering or investigating in a senior living facility or nursing home environment because that too is worth examining when one thinks of serving and protecting the elderly.
With the projected population growth, prudent detectives and investigators should be thinking about improving their knowledge of aging, their communication skills, their resources and their patience. Patience must be the underlying theme when working with an elderly victim and detectives need to be willing to invest more time in these cases compared to those involving younger victims.