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Transforming sexual assault response: Empowering individual detectives

Supervisors who rigidly adhere to traditional methods create a discouraging environment for those seeking to modernize and humanize the profession


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By Senior Investigator Matthew Stegner (ret.)

In candid conversations with law enforcement professionals nationwide about our approach to sexual violence and child abuse, a deeply concerning theme surfaces during the animated and insightful discussions that follow training sessions. The prevailing issue revolves around the lack of wholehearted support from higher-ranking officials for survivor-centric practices such as victim-centered investigations, trauma-informed interviews (video/audio recorded), and innovative investigative techniques.

The challenge of tradition

Within our profession, many have encountered supervisors who rigidly adhere to traditional methods, playing it safe in the pursuit of promotions. This resistance unfortunately constrains detectives on the front lines, creating a discouraging environment for those seeking to modernize and humanize the profession.

Leveraging experience

Drawing upon my extensive 26-year career, I present five comprehensive strategies to fellow professionals for effecting positive change without jeopardizing their careers:

1. Anticipate leadership changes

A foundational principle of navigating institutional resistance is the understanding that leadership evolves, especially among those prioritizing risk avoidance. While awaiting the inevitable shifts, astute detectives can exploit the disinterest of certain leaders in the intricacies of investigations. If aligned with directives and best practices, such as trauma-informed interviews, proceed without explicit permission. This strategic patience lays the groundwork for change.

2. Lead through actions, not words

A pivotal lesson learned through years of experience is the potency of leading by example. Rather than vocally expressing frustrations with higher-ups, concentrate on excelling in your role. Construct robust cases, provide unwavering support to survivors and consistently apply best practices. Allow your actions, not your words, to echo your commitment to positive change. This approach not only fosters trust within the team but also demonstrates the effectiveness of modern investigative techniques. Patience becomes a vital virtue as real change often takes time to manifest.

3. Harness the momentum of recognition

Cultivating a reputation as an exceptional investigator in sexual assault cases is paramount. Garnering recognition among advocates, prosecutors and peers can transform a detective from a potential challenge into an indispensable asset for superiors. Positive acknowledgment demands effort, but the dividends are significant. As community partners acknowledge a detective’s proficiency in trauma-informed techniques, the resistance from higher-ups is likely to wane. This shift positions the detective as a sought-after expert, contributing to a more favorable and progressive work environment.

4. Seek pivotal cases

Devotion to delivering high-caliber investigations for every sexual assault survivor is not just a professional duty but a commitment to justice. By consistently applying trauma-informed techniques, a detective enhances their investigative prowess. This proficiency may, in due course, lead to a high-profile case that captures media attention. The ensuing public scrutiny not only brings the issue to the forefront but also showcases the efficacy of modern investigative approaches. A well-handled case has the potential to influence public opinion and pave the way for institutional change.

5. Establish a support network

Acknowledging the challenges of this transformative path is crucial. Navigating it solo can be daunting. Engaging with local Sexual Assault Response and Resource Teams (SARRT) provides a platform to connect with supportive allies such as advocates, sexual assault nurse examiners and prosecutors. Collaborating with like-minded professionals not only strengthens the impact of individual efforts but also fosters a network that can advocate for change collectively. Building alliances within these groups provides a robust support system, mitigating the potential isolation that may accompany efforts to modernize investigative practices.

The power of collective change

The journey to transform sexual assault response at the individual detective level demands resilience, commitment and a strategic approach. As we navigate the complexities of our profession, it becomes evident that our actions today shape the landscape for survivors tomorrow. Encourage fellow professionals to view themselves as architects of change, weaving a tapestry of progress through trauma-informed practices and unwavering dedication. By fostering a culture that prioritizes survivors and amplifying the impact of our efforts, we not only shape our careers but contribute to a more compassionate and effective response to sexual assault.

Remember, the power to effect change rests within each detective, and survivors are not just counting on us – they are depending on us to be the champions they deserve. In extending our commitment to supporting survivors, we not only elevate our profession but also contribute to a more just and empathetic society. In the face of collective determination, institutional change is not just possible — it is inevitable.

About the author

Matthew Stegner is a retired Senior Investigator with the New York State Police, bringing decades of experience and a deep commitment to victim-centered investigations. His journey began when he honed his skills as a trained forensic interviewer, dedicating his efforts to supporting abused children in western New York. The trajectory of Matthew’s career evolved significantly when he took on a pivotal role in the Campus Sexual Assault Victims Unit. Here, he extended his impact to the college population, demonstrating an unwavering dedication to ensuring justice for survivors. His professional journey reached its pinnacle as a field supervisor for the Internet Crimes Against Children Taskforce in Erie County, New York. Recognized for his expertise, Matthew played a crucial role in designing trauma-informed training for the New York State Police. His passion for education and advocacy led him to become a sought-after speaker, presenting at numerous seminars and conferences. Matthew holds a Master’s Degree from the University of Albany, a testament to his commitment to continuous learning and professional development. He further contributes to the field as a master instructor for the Department of Criminal Justice Services in New York State.