Law enforcement to undergo sexual assault education training every three years

The executive director of NJ CASA discusses the importance of ongoing sexual violence education training.

Sexual assault remains one of the most under-reported crimes in the nation, and that’s despite Department of Justice figures showing someone across the U.S. is sexually assaulted every 98 seconds. On Monday, Gov. Chris Christie took a big step toward mitigating this by signing a bill requiring New Jersey police officers to get sexual violence education training every three years. The executive director for the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault, Patricia Teffenhart, played a key role in moving this forward.

Vannozzi: Why do police officers need this continuing training?

Teffenhart: I think you really just lead up to it in your introduction. This is the most under-reported crime. The FBI in 2013 released a report that said roughly 80,000 sexual assault cases had been reported to law enforcement across the country, and only 20 percent of those cases even led to an arrest. So what we think we can do here in New Jersey is set the bar even higher. We don’t want to be part of that minimal, low average that’s happening across the country. Law enforcement plays a critical role in both helping survivors feel safe and comfortable reporting, but also in our collective pursuit of holding offenders accountable. And the better they’re trained, the better outcomes we think we’ll have for survivors.

Vannozzi: What’s the relationship like when someone comes forward to a first responder to report this, why does it matter so much how that first responder reacts to that information and what they do with it?

Teffenhart: Sexual assault is highly traumatic thing that happens to people. It’s actually recognized as the second most violent crime, the first of which is murder, so the traumatic response that a survivor experiences looks and feels different for every survivor. There’s no cookie cutter response that someone should expect. So to train law enforcement on understanding the trauma response that a survivor might have, and to help them respond affirmingly and with sympathy and with understanding, that the trauma impacts the way someone affect presents, or the way they recount their story, is critically important. And I think one of the things that’s also really important is that in New Jersey if I’m the victim of a sexual assault and I wish to get immediate crisis response I can activate what’s called a sexual assault response team. And that’s comprised or three different components: both a forensic nurse examiner, a member of the law enforcement community and a confidential sexual violence advocate, which comes from one of our county-based rape crisis centers. Nurses have extensive annual training and ongoing training. Confidential sexual violence advocates, by mandate, also have a minimum of 40 hours of training and ongoing training from our rape crisis centers. Law enforcement was the missing piece. Prior to this bill being signed into law, law enforcement professions only had to receive sexual violence training while they were in the academy. So there’s obviously a lot that changes over time as we learn about the neurobiology of trauma. It’s a great opportunity for them to keep up the pace.

Vannozzi: Some police departments do already offer this training, so why is it beneficial to have a blanket, mandatory, across the board program for all of these officer to engage in?

Teffenhart: We appreciate and love the fact that so many municipalities were taking it under their own leadership to decide that this was an important thing to be discussed with their colleagues. The challenge is that in many instances those municipalities were taking some of the four hours that were allocated for the mandatory domestic violence training annually, and then figuring out how do we build sexual violence into that? And while there are certainly co-occurrences of domestic and sexual violence, they do have distinct, unique needs from a law enforcement response perspective. And the statute said those are supposed to be four hours of DV training and we don’t want to take from that.

Vannozzi: DV training, domestic violence training, right?

Teffenhart: Yes. And the other thing is that what we did with this law is we didn’t mandate a minimum amount of time. We just said every three years. This way we can continue to work with the Attorney General’s Office and the Division of Criminal Justice on identifying what are emerging trends, what are best practices, as they exist now. It doesn’t become this rote kind of every year we know we go thorough the same training, the answer to number one is A.

Vannozzi: And that was a big part of getting this through, yes?

Teffenhart: Absolutely. There are a lot of really small municipalities, and it could be a burden on some of them to have to obligate additional training hours every year for something that might seem redundant and repetitive year after year.

Vannozzi: What can we expect this training to look like? Will NJ CASA have a role in crafting what the training will be?

Teffenhart: This bill, now that it’s signed into law, is a really great compliment to a statewide effort in which we’ve been working with New Jersey State Police and other colleagues. We actually, in New Jersey, received a federal training grant from the Office of Violence Against Women to the New Jersey State Police to help create a sexual violence training component for law enforcement professionals. And we’ve been sitting around the room, as we’re creating this great training content on understanding oppression and a trauma-informed response, and we keep asking ourselves, “This is going to be an awesome training.” How do we ensure we get people to attend? This is the way we can get people to attend, and we’ve got great partnerships with the state police and the Attorney General’s Office that will allow us to continue to modify the curriculum and the content to make sure it’s relevant so that New Jersey’s first responders are really cutting edge as we continue to be in other areas across the state.

Vannozzi: What I think is interesting is we’re actually seeing in New Jersey this uptick in the number of these sexual assaults being reported, which sounds bad, but in a way it’s also good because that means people are actually coming forward. What does that mean? What’s happening in New Jersey? Why is that?

Teffenhart: That’s exactly right, and that was one of the big cases that we made as we were advocating for the passing of this legislation, that more and more survivors are coming forward. The public discourse on issues relating to sexual violence is more prominent than ever before. We have more survivors coming forward through social media. So we know as survivors come forward, it just takes one really public misstep to shut that down. So we want to make sure that as survivors come forward they can affirm that the response from all of us involved has been compassionate and appropriate. That they haven’t felt mis-believed. That they feel as if the evidence was collected in a timely and appropriate manner. There are so many elements that go into making sure that with each survivor that comes forward, we’re sending a strong message to the rest of New Jersey that this is a crime we take seriously, will help survivors through their process and will also work really hard to hold offenders accountable.

Vannozzi: Quickly before we have to end, any idea of when we can expect to see this go into effect?

Teffenhart: The bill requires at least seven months from the time it was signed, so it was signed on Monday, we have seven months from that date to actually start implementing, but we’re really ahead of the game. As I mentioned, this work that we’re doing with the State Police, we should start being able to roll trainings out as early as March of next year. So we’re really excited to start seeing this go into implementation mode and figuring out what else we need to do to help create a safer New Jersey.

Vannozzi: More work ahead. Patricia Teffenhart, thank you for coming in.

Teffenhart: Thank you so much.