A Sensitive Approach

Police academy instructors often tell recruits learning to handle sexual crimes about a woman who was severely beaten and raped. The victim was incapable of discussing the incident for a month and a half afterwards, and she could not talk about her assailant for three months. After she did describe him, the man was finally arrested.

Although that example is an extreme case, police often waver between trying to reassure assault victims and pursuing suspects. Coaxing the victim to discuss information necessary to catch assailants while keeping her calm requires time and compassion--and a lot of training.

In an attempt to better deal with attacks, the University police last month set up a unit to investigate rapes, assaults, molestation and other brutal crimes. The new "Sensitive Crimes Unit" includes eight male detectives and the department's two patrolwoman. Although trained to search the scene of a crime, photograph evidence or marks on the victim and take statements, the unit's primary concern is getting medical attention for the victim, Marie L. Sullivan '79, a patrolwoman, says.

To reduce the victim's trauma, only one unit officer--of the same sex--interviews the victim. Sullivan says, "It's a delicate balance to be able to be sensitive to a person's feelings and to still elicit the information necessary to prosecute, but most women are receptive to another woman showing up. That surprised me. An equally compassionate and sensitive man will probably do as well, but he often feels uncomfortable."

No matter how good the officer-victim rapport, the process can take time. Sullivan says she does not expect immediate results when she begins an interview, adding that many victims are hysterical--"they couldn't even tell you their name." She tries to calm them and see that they receive treatment for cuts, bruises and possible veneral disease or pregnancy. While she gets a detailed account of the attack--state law recognizes different degrees of rape, so she must determine exactly what kind of attack occurred--another unit officer may collect evidence, such as hair, semen or a cigarette butt. Although officers are trained to avoid asking victims to repeat details of incidents, Sullivan says, "There's nothing like a real-life situation to show that your training is inadequate."


Nonetheless, that training is thorough. Sullivan and Patrolwoman Barbara A. Blaney need detective skills only when they are investigating sexual crimes, but they have taken courses in searching crime scenes, taking statements, forensics, case preparation and rapist psychology.

Saul Chafin, chief of University police, says the Sensitive Crimes Unit will help make the unit more professional and independent of other police. Captain Jack W. Morse says. "Before, we left sensitive crimes to a few individuals with training in that area. Now there's a definitive unit with specific goals."

One of those aims is to provide long-term care to assault victims. The police will move a raped student to another House or dormitory, check on her periodically, and--if her assailant is arrested--stay with her throughout the trial, Chafin says. "We want her to know it's not her against the world. It's her, the Harvard police, the University and the Commonwealth against the perpetrator," he says.

University Health Services also provides counseling as long as the victim wants it, Nadja B. Gould, a psychiatric social worker, is on call 24 hours a day to give immediate, confidential counseling. Rape victims, Gould says, often tell her they feel numb, off-balanced and slightly paralyzed. "One use of counseling is to get people back to using their coping mechanisms and regaining their sense of self-esteem. How that happens is different with each woman," Gould says.

With the victim's permission, the rape is reported to the sensitive crimes unit, President Horner and Marlyn Lewis, assistant dean for coeducation, who handles sexual harassment cases. Gould says all the Cambridge victims she has counseled were willing to report attacks, although a few preferred to remain anonymous. But, she adds, only one in five rapes nationwide is reported. And Sullivan says that at Harvard, "I hear rumors of rapes, but I never see the victim. I just hear it through the grapevine."

The sensitive crimes unit may encourage more women to report rapes, Sullivan says. That may spare both men and women from attacks, because most rapists repeat their crime by letting anger build up until they explode.

All information given to the unit remains confidential. Only the unit officers, Chafin and Morse have access to the separate, locked file, Chafin says.

Having once organized a similar unit at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Chafin approached Sullivan and Blaney shortly after they were hired last fall as the first women on the force--under state law, a rape unit must include at least one female officer.

The unit may handle more rapes and assaults this year because the department's 64 officers were sworn in as deputy sheriffs in Middlesex County in July. That means they can now make arrests in any part of the country without having to call in police from Cambridge. It also means those additional arrests will now show up on police statistics. Last year, when a Harvard affiliate was raped near Mather House, the incident did not appear on Harvard police statistics because the attack occurred outside Harvard property.

"If we are used, we can be a very instrumental group on campus," Sullivan says, adding. "People who are assaulted can bel assured that they will receive as much sensitivity as is humanly possible."