Q&A with Russell Strand, retired criminal investigator

Posted Monday, Aug. 20, 2012  comments  Print Reprints

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Russell Strand is a retired criminal investigator, based in Missouri, who travels 250 days a year teaching investigation seminars for military and civilian detectives on how to tackle acquaintance rape cases. The following are excerpts from a recent interview with the Star-Telegram.

Star-Telegram: A lot of your work seems to center around the nature of the sexual predator? Could you talk about that?

Strand: Sex offenders are more dedicated than most of us who are trying to catch them. They're more dedicated to getting away with it. Sex offenders understand human behavior a lot better than most of us. They do. They exploit that knowledge of human behavior. That's what a good predator does. They learn about their prey. But they also learn the people around the prey. They groom people around them. A lot of police officers are trained to befriend the [suspect], get close to them, get them to trust you. Sex offenders have more of an interest in doing that to us, because it boils down to the credibility of one person against another.

Experts such as yourself say acquaintance rape perpetrators can seem very convincing, even more so than the victim.

There are two huge myths. One is that we can actually detect deception. A lot of research says that we can't. We do very poorly at that. The second big lie is that inconsistent statements [of victims] equal a lie. If a victim tells us something that's not true or changes her story along the way, the victim is lying. But if a victim is traumatized, you would expect there to be inconsistencies.

Most of the time the perpetrator feels like they're the victim. The suspect believes they are the victim and are more believable as the victim than the actual victim. Victims often blame themselves, second-guess themselves about what they did or didn't do. They feel bad about what happened, while the suspect doesn't feel bad about it, other than being challenged or being caught. We are trying to train law enforcement not to be fooled into thinking that credibility boils down to likeability.

In interviews, sex offenders are often very likeable and maybe the victim isn't as likeable. It's a trap we can fall into. The victim hasn't made sense of what happened. There are fragmented memories and trauma issues. The suspect knows what happened and makes more sense.

Tell us about your theory of the three personas.

Everyone has three personas. There is the public persona, the uninhibited persona, and the private persona. The public persona is who we are when we are out in public. We work very hard at that. The uninhibited person is who we are with people who have already accepted us, family members and close friends. The private persona is where the skeletons reside, where fantasies reside, where deeds people do or think about doing reside, but you don't want anybody to know.

I do something when I teach classes. I usually dress in a nice suit and tie when I'm talking about this theory. After I explain it I'll take off my jacket and underneath I'll be wearing a shirt that's torn and dirty and has nasty words written on it like 'rapist.' Then I'll ask the class, 'Would any of you know I had this shirt on unless I showed it to you?' We never know who that person is, what's under the jacket. All [the victim] saw was the jacket, and when the jacket came off it was too late. Then the suspect puts the jacket back on.

Sex offenders in my experience are really masters at the first persona, masters at making the second persona seem very appealing, and they are very much masters at hiding the third persona.

So how to you get at that third persona with a suspect?

Most suspects believe they're the victim. What we ought to do is treat them like a victim. Rather than asking, 'Was this consensual? Did you do this or that,' acknowledge that it's a difficult situation. They're not ready for that. 'Tell me more about that,' that makes them uncomfortable. 'What were you thinking before you put your penis in? What did it feel like?' They're not ready for that. 'She was doing it all. Okay, what did it feel like?' It really helps get more of the experiential stuff out of them by acknowledging their pain, asking questions about their thinking and reactions to the experience before, during and after. Ask them about the five senses. 'What was the most difficult part for you?'

By using this technique they admit all kinds of things, not only with this victim but with several others. Often times we won't have to go to a contested trial when we get info from a suspect. Not only are they disclosing what happened, but when you can get to the third persona, the personal stuff, holy cow, we're going to uncover additional crimes and additional victims.

You've said the victim has the third persona, too, embarrassing things she doesn't want to reveal. As an investigator, you have to get at that. What are your suggestions?

It's basically a very simple procedure. The first thing for anybody who has undergone trauma is that they have to believe that the person talking to them right now cares. Most cops are not very good at that. They want to be good at it, but police officers and detectives become hardened. They want to protect themselves from the ongoing trauma so they build a wall between themselves and the trauma, and in doing so they build a wall between themselves and the victim. We have to train law enforcement to acknowledge the (victim's) trouble in a sincere manner, to enter into what we call the trauma bubble.

Then the first question is, 'What are you able to tell me about your experience?' There are two key words in that question. One is able. Not all victims are able to tell us now. The other is experience. There is a world of difference between what happened, and what the victim experienced. Then we shut our mouths. We shut up and listen as the person tells us whatever they want to tell us. We can ask prompting questions, like, 'Tell me more about that? Tell me more about the penis?' Tell me more about how you felt when you woke up?'

Another thing that closes down the third persona is a 'why' question? Frankly, they have already asked themselves that question. Instead you ask, What was your thought process during this experience? What were you thinking at this point in time? You get the most amazing responses. 'I thought he was going to kill me,' or 'I thought my husband might wake up while he was raping me. Then my husband would try to kill him and what would that do to our family?' That makes it much easier to answer the why questions, like 'Why didn't you run or why didn't you scream?'

The other part is: 'What were your reactions to this experience, what physiological and emotional reactions, but not just at the time of the event, but what happened when you got home? What happened the next morning? The next week?' Traditionally, victim impact is only used in the sentencing phase of trials. But the vast majority of evidence created in sexual assault cases, and what makes it more understandable to juries, is impact evidence. What we're doing is asking investigators and prosecutors to use this process with the victim on the witness stand. The first few times it's really been fascinating. The defense didn't know how to react. I object your honor, irrelevant. But what's not relevant about her experience? And the experience doesn't end at the time of the rape. More evidence is created following the rape. That's when the impact is starting to occur. It's what we now call forensic physiological evidence.

In the rest of this interview process, you ask, 'What was the most difficult part of experience for you?' This has produced totally amazing information.

What kind of reception do your ideas have among law enforcement officers you have trained?

We do have some pushback but I am amazed, absolutely amazed, by how receptive detectives, investigators and agents are. Most of the really good detectives already understand human behavior. That's what makes them good. But they've never had the information and the research. Every detective that I've talked to who has been honest with me says, 'I really have had a hard time. I believe the victim after I interview the victim, then I believe the suspect after I talk to him.' But we're not getting the depth of the information we need.

The only pushback I generally get when I talk about undetected sex offenders is from those who say, 'Wait a minute. I was that guy in college. I did that. That's not rape.' And I would say, but it is. A lot of them have a hard time. The other main ones that push back are the ones who have been that person, the female victim. They say, 'Well, this isn't really rape.' Some of them have been victims of rape but haven't acknowledged it to themselves yet.

In many ways, this seems like a watershed moment for investigating and prosecuting acquaintance rape. Is that fair?

These are exciting times. We're getting so much new research. We're starting to make some huge differences. The only concern I have is that the sex offender will read your article and might exploit it a little bit. But I worry less about that than helping the victim understand and law enforcement understand. The victims need to know they are not going to be revictimized, not traumatized with traditional techniques. It's a very important message to get across. It's an important message to offenders about what is sexual assault and what is not.

Tim Madigan, (817) 390-7544; Twitter: @tsmadigan

About the series

Part 1: In Tarrant County, more than half of all acquaintance rape cases since 2008 have died behind the closed doors of a grand jury. National experts are shocked, victims outraged. Many wonder why justice isn’t being done.

Part 2: Meet the typical perpetrator of acquaintance rape. He’s not who you think he is.

Part 3: For the rape victims who report, a teddy bear and a lot of support.

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