Why words matter when documenting a sexual assault

Follow these seven steps to increase the odds a case is prosecuted


By Catherine Johnson

One of the least favorite tasks a law enforcement professional must perform is to write reports. Patrol officers are required to document everything from the calls to which they are dispatched to criminal reports filed by citizens. Very few officers enjoy this part of the job. It is not exciting or sexy and is time-consuming.

However, it is a vital part of the process and can make the difference in a criminal case being pursued by the prosecutor’s office. Prosecutors often do not speak to the victim or witnesses before making a decision on whether or not to pursue a case. Instead, they depend on investigators to accurately document what occurred.

Ask open-ended, non-judgmental questions and document responses as they are given. (Photo/Pixabay)
Ask open-ended, non-judgmental questions and document responses as they are given. (Photo/Pixabay)

The quality and content of law enforcement officers' and investigators' reports have a significant impact on the trajectory a case does or does not take within the criminal justice system. When documenting a sexual assault, law enforcement officers should consider the following things:

1. Begin with the end in mind

Law enforcement officials should document the case as though they will be called to testify in court years later without the aid of photographs or videos. Unlike on television, criminal cases rarely see a courtroom quickly. Document sights, sounds and smells (if applicable). Create a word picture that will help others see the scene and help accurately remember the details.

For example, instead of writing, “The house was in disarray,” consider writing, “Clothing hung out of the open drawers of the dresser. Pillows and other miscellaneous items littered the floor. Empty glasses and food containers were observed on the table and counter. A dried, white substance was observed on the tan sofa cushion.”

A thorough description may help a prosecutor make a more informed decision.

2. Be thorough in describing the details of a sexual assault

The devil is in the details, so do not leave anything out. During an investigation, especially early on, investigators don’t always know which details are important and which details are not. Therefore, it is critical that everything is documented thoroughly.

What started out as a one-victim crime could turn into a serial investigation, and those small details may be the way to link all of the investigations together.

For example, during a serial rape investigation in Kansas City, Missouri, several victims reported being unable to get out of the backseat of the perpetrator’s vehicle. One victim compared it to being in the back of a police car. When the cases were linked together, and the perpetrator was identified, it was discovered that the child safety locks were activated on both of the vehicles used to facilitate the crime. This small detail demonstrated a consistent piece of information among all of the cases even though the perpetrator used two different vehicles to commit his crime.

3. Remember to be trauma-informed and to ask the correct questions

It is critical to be trauma-informed during a victim interview. Consider how much time has passed between the crime and the interview. When was the last time the victim slept or had something to eat or drink? Is there a victim advocate or other appropriate support person present?

Ask open-ended, non-judgmental questions and document responses as they are given. Avoid asking questions that set victims up for failure, such as, “Did you say ‘no’ or ‘stop'?” Instead, ask questions that provide the victim an opportunity to describe how they communicated a lack of consent. This gives victims the opportunity to describe their experience and gives the investigator the information needed to establish a lack of consent, resistance and/or the presence of fear.

4. Use appropriate terminology when describing a sexual assault

When a victim describes someone putting their hands or an object around their neck, it is common for them to state they were “choked.” “Choking” refers to a blocked airway, whereas “strangle” refers to a person’s neck being squeezed. When documenting the action, use quotation marks around “choke,” followed with the appropriate terminology of what occurred.

5. Use active versus passive tense when describing the assault

Here is an example of passive tense: “The suspect was hitting the victim as they ripped their clothing from their body.” Here is an example of active tense; “The suspect hit the victim and tore their clothing from their body.” Active tense helps the reader better understand the dynamic of what occurred.

6. Use the language of non-consensual sex

This applies to the interview and documentation. Avoid asking questions like, “Did you have sex?” or “Did you give or engage in or perform?” These phrases imply consent.

Instead, ask open-ended questions and phrases. For example, “Describe what happened when … ” or, “Did he/she put any part of their mouth on your body? Tell me more about that.” Open-ended questions and phrases allow the victim to tell what occurred without being limited to filling in a narrative created by the interviewer.

Listen to what the victim, witness and suspect say, and document the words and phrases they use. Use quotation marks to demonstrate the statement is a direct quote and not a summary.

Here is an example of how forced oral copulation could be documented: The victim stated, “Tubby grabbed me by the hair, shoved my face on his junk and said ‘suck it.’” The detective clarified with the victim “junk” meant the suspect’s penis and “suck it” meant oral sex.

By using direct quotes and the language of non-consensual sex the reader will have a clearer picture of what occurred and be able to ascertain lack of consent.

7. Do not sanitize the report

The report should not be sanitized nor language changed. Use quotation marks and, if necessary, clarify what the victim said using professional terminology. Here is an example of how slang can be documented in a report.

The victim stated Tubby “nutted” inside of her. The detective clarified with the victim that “nutted” referred to ejaculation.

Again, document the words and phrases used by the victim, witness and suspect to maintain authenticity.


About the author

Catherine Johnson is a former detective and subject matter expert with experience in developing and implementing training on violence against women for law enforcement, military, and other multi-disciplinary partners both locally and internationally. She also serves as Secretary on the Board of Directors for End Violence Against Women International. For more information and resources, visit the EVAWI resource library.

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