Investigating sexual assault: How the Army is using training to promote culture change

Story by Jacqueline M. Hames, Soldiers Live


The Army has revolutionized how it trains sexual assault investigators, and when put into practice, that training is bringing about a culture change, within law enforcement, among victims and suspects and across the force. (DOD photo by Marvin Lynchard)

Sexual assault is a serious problem throughout society, not only because of the obvious danger inherent in an assault, but also because of the portrayal of the victim and the reported suspect. Often, the suspect seems to be an otherwise upstanding member of society, while the victim is perceived as someone who deserved the assault.

These preconceived notions aren’t true, and the Army is working to change that from the inside out.

“What we are setting out to do is bring about culture change,” said Russell Strand, chief of the Family Advocacy Law Enforcement Training Division at the U.S. Army Military Police School at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.

Strand joined the Army’s military police in 1975 and became an agent at the Army Criminal Investigation Command in 1984, specializing in child sexual assault and other forms of child abuse. He helped to develop a child abuse investigations course, as well as a domestic violence intervention-training course, both of which are still being used by the CID.

In 2004 and 2005, the CID showed an increased interest in how to better investigate sexual assaults. Strand was called upon to help develop sexual assault-specific training models to enhance the full-spectrum skill sets of the military police and CID agents.

Training the change

Training began with a sexual assault course for everyone in the field, and then expanded to give specialized training to forensic science officers. After a while, Strand realized that in order to get a full culture change — to eliminate victim blaming and preconceived notions about reported suspects — the training would have to be more extensive.

“Long story short, we realized that to bring about culture change we needed a two-week course, minimum two-week course, where we bring the agents in and start from the very basics, not just the investigative basics, but victimology, the basics of offenders, and very quickly go into much more advanced training and experiential training on these things, like victim impact and such,” he said.

Training, to include a Special Victims Unit course, grew to include all senior agents in the field and senior supervisors to help facilitate a cultural change, he explained.

“And since that point, we’ve worked through our mid-level agents, as far as our mid-level supervisors, and now we’re training basically all the agents that we can,” Strand said.

“We’re training approximately 40 students about every month now, in one of Russ Strand’s courses,” Guy Surian, deputy G2/G3 for the CID, said. In addition to the forensic experiential trauma interview, or FETI, techniques the agents are learning about trauma, recall and how the victim’s memory is affected.

“We teach about alcohol-facilitated sexual assault, same-sex sexual assault, marital sexual assault, we talk about false report myths, and we go through all of those topics, and many more, to get the agents up to speed on what it means to the victim as a result of sexual assault, what we should expect and why there (are) things like counterintuitive behavior on the parts of victims,” he said.

The training puts forth the theory of the third persona, Strand said. It is the theory that each person is actually three people: The public persona, the uninhibited persona and the private persona.

“The private persona almost nobody ever knows,” Strand said. “So that’s why you hear about all these rapists and serial murderers, they go out and they do all these things, and then almost everybody in public says the same thing: ‘Wow, I can’t believe he did something like that.’”

Strand wears a ripped shirt labeled with words like ‘alcoholic,’ ‘liar’ and ‘rapist’ under his suit jacket when teaching courses on sexual assault. He’ll reveal the shirt to the class when discussing the idea of the private persona to emphasize how little people know about each other, and how sex offenders could potentially manipulate the people around them.

“That’s what sex offenders do. They really manipulate us into believing they are one type of person, but underneath is that ripped shirt with all those names on it. They are master manipulators at that, but they are also master manipulators at hiding their third persona,” Strand said. “It really shocks everybody.”

Strand believes the theory of the third persona is essential to curbing snap judgments on reported suspects. No one can judge another’s character effectively, and people need to move past the “I know that person better” mentality, he explained.

The forensic experiential trauma interview combines critical incident stress debriefing techniques, neurobiology and open-ended, non-leading questions to help the victim open up about the experienced trauma, Strand explained. The previous interview model isn’t particularly effective, because it limits the victim’s answers to hard facts tending to allow for, if unconsciously, some amount of victim blaming.

“Those who, what, where, when, why and how questions don’t help. What helps is understanding the experience, understanding the senses, understanding the thought process, and it really helps us understand why or why not (the victim) did or didn’t do certain things.” Strand said.

The old interview technique could make the victim uncomfortable, resulting in nervousness, loss of eye contact, increased heart rate — all things a traditional polygraph test would flag as a sign of lying. During his research, Strand discovered that these traditional signs of lying are also natural reactions to trauma.

“That’s why we in law enforcement often think that victims are lying, because they are acting like we’ve been trained liars act. (But) they are merely responding naturally from the trauma,” he explained.

FETI is easier on victims because it doesn’t re-victimize them the way traditional interviews can. The technique begins with empathy, asking about the experience before asking about the more “fill-form” information.

“Instead of traditionally kicking in the back door to get the information, we’re being invited through the front,” he said.

Change in action

Not only does FETI work well in gathering important information from victims, it also helps when questioning reported suspects. The technique helps to get around the lies, Strand said, because the suspect is not prepared to be asked about feelings or experiences.

Special Agent Clarence Joubert III with the 3rd MP Group at Fort Campbell, Ky., is a supervisory special agent for the Special Victims Unit. Joubert has been in law enforcement for 24 years and has received the training Strand spearheaded.

Having worked as an interrogator and polygraph operator before joining the CID in May 2010, Joubert was used to the traditional methods of questioning. He completed the CID’s new special victims unit training in September of that year and his newly acquired skills were immediately tested.

Joubert received a call from Fort Campbell as he was pulling out of the training facility; there had been a sexual assault at his home installation, and he was requested to return as soon as possible to interview the suspect because of his interrogation background.

“As I drove back for five hours, I started to entertain and revert back to my old polygraph ways, if you will, because there you’re more in touch with the subject than you are with the victim, so those interviews tend to be more dogmatic, more aggressive,” he said.  As he was driving, he started to think about his recent training.

“I started to slow down a minutes and just embrace what Russ Strand had just taught me for the past two weeks.” He used the FETI technique on the suspect when he arrived at Fort Campbell. The suspect confessed over the course of the nine-hour interview.

“That subject not only confessed to the brutal sexual assault and attempted murder, but I learned more information in that interview than I had in any of the prior interrogations as a polygraph examiner,” Joubert said. “For nine hours, literally, 80 to 90 percent of that conversation was the subject telling me about his life. He let me in, so to speak.”

The suspect was tried, found guilty and confined for 50 years.

Joubert advocates for FETI with his coworkers as well as with outside agencies because of the initial success he experienced. “The first time you do it and see it and feel it, that’s it. No one will ever have to tell you to do it again because you have seen the technique work, and it’s that prevalent,” he said.

He believes there is a certain delay in assimilating the new technique among the agents, but he doesn’t feel anyone will have true difficulties accepting the culture change. The CID has always been about doing the right thing and collecting facts, Joubert explained, it just has to adjust its perception on how to collect those facts.

Army leading the way

The CID has hired specially trained sexual assault investigators at about 20 large installations to serve as subject matter experts and teach other agents how to better prepare cases, write reports and present the facts of a crime so a commander or prosecutor can understand it well, Surian said.

They are taking a “multi-discipline approach” to sexual assault investigations, involving lawyers, victim-witness advocates, behavioral science experts and medical experts to help assess the crime and gather evidence, he added.

While the culture change within the CID and the Army is going well, Strand hopes to bring the same change to law enforcement nationally. He believes the Army is leading the way in this endeavor, but to make the change complete it has to be personal for everyone.

“What I mean by that is everyone has to look at this and see that it’s not just a female problem. It’s not a female problem, it never has been. Sexual assault is a human problem, it’s a person problem, it’s an emotional and physical problem,” he said.

The Army, through it’s efforts with the SHARP program and the ‘I. A.M. (Intervene, Act, Motivate) Strong’ campaign, is heightening awareness of sexual assault, asking Soldiers to look out for one another. Sexual assault prevention begins with awareness.

“Be prepared and be aware. Again, the offender relies on stealth alone, really. A lot of times for these things to take place, the strongest deterrent is having a second person, or a buddy system,” Joubert said.

Surian agreed, encouraging bystander intervention if a Soldier sees another person in a situation that could lead to sexual assault.

Joubert said the Army has fostered a more trusting environment for sexual assault victims to come forward because of campaigns like ‘I. A.M. Strong’ and the culture change happening within law enforcement.

“This is an exciting time in CID because I think we can give victims what they absolutely deserve, and that is someone that understand and believes them,” Joubert said.


  1. Great Article. Thanks for the info. Does anyone know where I can find a blank “2010 Canada IMM 5645E, [09-2010]” to fill out?