Cushman: Start Teaching Law Enforcement How to Talk to Sexual Violence Survivors


Jake Stranzl

Police officers assemble outside of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Oct. 7, 2020. (Photo by Jake Stranzl | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

By KC Ellen Cushman, Opinion Writer


Content Warning: This article discusses issues and experiences related to sexual assault.

On Sept. 15, four U.S. Olympic athletes testified to the Senate about the FBI’s mishandling of sexual abuse claims against former Olympic doctor Larry Nassar.

The Senate hearing revealed how FBI agents ignored sexual abuse reports and falsely reported statements from victims, allowing a pedophile to continue to victimize young women and girls for an additional year after those initial reports.

The athletes also testified about how agents minimized their trauma when they tried to make reports. This clearly illuminates that our law enforcement doesn’t know how to talk to sexual assault survivors. Law enforcement needs to undergo survivor-focused training on how to talk with sexual violence survivors to avoid retraumatizing them.


In an interview with Sonya Martinez-Ortiz, the executive director of Utah’s Rape Recovery Center, she explained that survivors need to be believed and validated when they open up for the healing process to work. She stressed the importance of giving survivors as much power and control as possible because “when they were assaulted, power and control was taken from them.” Sexual assault thrives on silencing, minimizing and depowering victims, and investigators should be more aware of that.

The FBI’s handling of the case against Nassar went against every suggestion Martinez-Ortiz gave for helping sexual violence victims recover. At every turn, the agents took power away and minimized the women who made reports.

When gymnast McKayla Maroney chose to report her abuser, FBI agents took her power and silenced her by failing to report the allegations for over a year. Aly Raisman recalled during the Senate hearing how FBI agents made her feel as if her “abuse didn’t count and it wasn’t a big deal,” after years of therapy to help her understand that her abuse mattered.

They minimized the significance of the abuse by using statements such as “Is that all?” as Maroney broke down in tears about what happened. The way the FBI spoke to Nassar’s victims clearly demonstrates retraumatization.

Two of every three sexual assaults are never reported. When retraumatization happens, survivors become less likely to report what happened or regret reporting it. However, Martinez-Ortiz explained “those who do engage in reporting … have access to advocacy and resources,” and this can reduce negative health outcomes such as PTSD.

A System-Wide Problem

While the Senate hearing unveiled serious problems within the FBI, revictimization by law enforcement happens at every level. Women in at least seven cities across the United States have had to sue law enforcement to get their sexual assault cases investigated.

A U.S. Department of Justice review of Baltimore police found that officers would ask sexual assault survivors questions such as “Why are you messing that guy’s life up?” or insinuating that victims of rape weren’t real victims.

Here at the University of Utah, campus police have a long and well-documented history of poor treatment of sexual assault victims. According to allegations from former female officers, campus police have “adjusted” rape and dating violence reports to downplay the severity of what happened, directly told victims they didn’t believe them and asked questions that placed blame on rape victims.

Law enforcement at every level can retraumatize survivors. The Senate hearing demonstrated that law enforcement officers do not know how to talk to sexual violence survivors. They don’t know how to take victims seriously, which causes real harm. It means that less survivors report their assault and, as a result, have worse health outcomes. We should expect better from our law enforcement. We need to demand that they protect and serve the people who come to them.

Survivor-Focused Training

The most vital step to stop retraumatization by law enforcement is providing better training on how to speak with survivors. Martinez-Ortiz explained that training needs to be “trauma-informed and survivor-focused.”

Luckily, this type of training already exists. Former West Valley policeman Justin Boardman and Utah prosecutor Donna Kelly have developed a Trauma-Informed Victim Interview Protocol. The protocol would give officers the training they need to get answers while also avoiding questions that victim-blame, minimize their experience and depower them.  The problem lies in the fact that Utah, other states, and the FBI haven’t implemented these trainings.

College-aged students are much more likely to experience sexual violence than non-students of the same age. The U needs to implement trauma-informed, survivor-focused training to protect students.

Research suggests that in Utah one in six women and one in 25 men experience rape or attempted rape during their lifetime. Rape is the only violent crime that is higher than the national average in our state. Our state legislators need to defend victims of sexual violence to start changing that. They need to ensure that our police officers know how to talk to survivors by implementing better training and protocols.

Law enforcement has continually let down and retraumatized survivors of sexual violence, but there is a way forward. The hard work to create better training and protocols has already been done. Now we just need to demand better from our police at the state and national level and implement training that will help them to protect find justice for survivors.


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Author’s Note: If you or someone you know is a survivor of sexual assault, there are resources available. Please call
National Sexual Assault Hotline 800-656-4673 or visit
to chat with someone.