Annie Walker clutched a crumpled tissue and a packet of documents as she waited to be called in for the hearing. She wore leopard-print flats, black slacks and a bulky black sweater — an outfit she’d gone out to purchase the night before after a failed and frenzied search through her closet.
Nearly two years after she says she was sexually assaulted in her place of work, she was still dealing with the fall-out.
At the September 2020 meeting with the California Victim Compensation Board, Walker did her best to convince a judge that the crime occurred. She read a detailed statement, through tears, rehashing the events of the night that changed her life. And she hoped to be believed.
The board was trying to decide whether Walker should have her therapy, new security cameras and other costs associated with her attack covered by the state. After initially approving the compensation, they were reassessing the payment because “law enforcement concluded that it is unlikely a crime occurred,” according to a memo from the Cal VCB hearing officer provided to CapRadio by Walker.
“I’ve just been shut down all week about this, just anxiety and trying to put all this together,” she said the morning of the hearing. “Just having to relive everything and really just think about how I want to present myself at this hearing and make sure they know how devastating this has been.”
This wasn’t the first time she had to try to prove to someone that her assault was real, that the bruises on her arms were from being shoved as the alleged perpetrator attempted to take her clothes off. For the better part of two years, she’d been seeking justice through the Sacramento County Sheriff's Office — a long and exhausting process that she says left her in a cycle of panic, depression and rage.
“You have a rapist that does this to you and it's like they have power over you, and it just feels like the same power structure,” Walker said of working with the criminal justice system.
“I always wanted to believe that it was for good or to help, but in my situation, that's not what it's turned out to be … just the door shut in my face, like over and over and over again.”
Like many sexual assault survivors, Walker has had trouble remembering the details of the incident. This often leads law enforcement to think the incident didn’t happen, according to experts and advocates.
They say the traditional process for investigating sexual assaults does not take into account survivor trauma. And that can affect a survivor’s willingness to work with law enforcement.
“And so there's a real danger when investigators are asking people for information that was never encoded or has been lost in the meantime,” said Harvard University psychologist Jim Hopper. “They can stress out the victim, leave them feeling misunderstood, incompetent, not wanting to further engage with the investigation.”
But scientific research shows that if law enforcement officers get training on sexual trauma and change the way they ask questions, they may be able to glean information that can help them solve more cases.
I always wanted to believe that it was for good or to help, but in my situation, that's not what it's turned out to be … just the door shut in my face, like over and over and over again.
“It's an issue for many departments because they haven't had the time or necessarily the funds to invest in really enhancing the skills,” said Carrie Hull, a former Ashland Police Department detective who helped develop a training program on trauma and memory.
She says having trauma-informed interviewers is “like your SWAT team, you have a very defined group of people that are able to deploy a skill for a very specific reason, which is simply information-gathering”
She says when interviews and investigations aren’t conducted by specialized personnel, cases are more likely to hit a dead end.
Wellesley College researchers looked at nearly 3,000 rape or attempted rape cases across six jurisdictions for a 2019 study, and found 19% of them ended in arrest. But less than 2% went to trial. The cases that the team looked at were reported to police between 2008 and 2010.
Walker’s alleged perpetrator was never arrested. She thinks that has something to do with the way certain details about the crime came back to her, and the way detectives on her case perceived her confusion.
Walker reported to the Sacramento Sheriff’s Office one week after the incident. She says deputies came to her house to take the report. She told them what she could remember from that night: that she was drinking, that she was left alone with the perpetrator, that he shoved her and tried to remove her clothes.
Then, three days after making the report, another vivid memory came back to her.
“I knew that there was a gun at my neck, at my back,” she said. “It was just clear, and I wanted to make sure that the authorities knew.”
But she says when she told the detective this new information, the detective made her feel she’d done something wrong.
“I couldn’t explain why I couldn’t remember,” she said.
Putting The Pieces Together
Walker says the morning after she was assaulted, she woke up disoriented and confused.
“There was like this huge bruise all over my arm,” she said. “And I had bruises all over my body. … But I literally had no idea, like, what had happened. And, for days, I was trying to put the pieces together.”
Trauma experts say it’s common for sexual assault survivors to not be able to recall the attack. Details can return to them in the days, weeks and months that follow. They might remember certain facts but not others, or have memories that are incomplete or out of order.
This has to do with the way the brain records memory during a crisis, which impacts how easily someone can access the information later.
Studies on memory-recall describe two types of details: central and peripheral. Central details are those that capture our attention and evoke emotions in the moment, such as the perpetrator’s weapon. Peripheral details are those that a survivor might not have been paying attention to during the crisis, such as the color of the perpetrator’s shirt. Central details tend to be stored more reliably and for longer than peripheral details.
Hopper, the Harvard psychologist, says the criminal justice system often puts unrealistic expectations on sexual assault survivors.
“We would never question the credibility of a soldier, based on whether they can remember the exact sequence of those mortars coming in and which one blew off their friend’s leg versus which blew off that guy’s arm,” he said.
But he says survivors aren’t afforded the same tolerance.
“Every day in courtrooms around the country, we attack and question the credibility of victims of sexual assault for having the same kind of memories that soldiers have for their combat experiences.”
For Walker, the perpetrator’s gun was a central detail that her brain recorded, but she had trouble retrieving that memory in the immediate aftermath of the assault.
And there were other details that came back to her over time, like what he was wearing. She said when detectives initially asked her that question, she couldn’t answer it.
“I remember I just kept saying, ‘I don't know, I don't know, I don't know,’” she said. “I think I might have said, like, ‘I don't know, blue jeans, maybe?
‘Deer in the Headlights’
Trauma not only impacts what information the brain records — it also affects behavior during an attack.
When someone is in crisis, their brain often activates a “fight or flight” response in which it chooses to defend or escape. This response causes increased heart rate, sharper eyesight and lower pain response, which allows for a more rapid response to the threat.
There’s also a “freeze” response, in which the body becomes immobile in order to protect itself.
In these scenarios, the brain’s “defense circuitry” takes over. Hopper says that term refers to the areas of the brain responsible for scanning for danger. When the defense circuitry is activated, Hopper says it can impair the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that’s responsible for decision-making.
“And that's what people are running on, whether it's combat, sexual assault or anything else,” Hopper said. “And when police understand that, then they have a lot more openness to why that woman didn't fight or yell, why she was like a deer in a headlights ... not because she's an idiot, but because the really intelligent parts of her brain were turned off and she was stuck on an ineffective habit response.”
There's a grief and a loss also associated with the feeling of not feeling safe or in control of your own body. Whether that's because somebody else has violated it or it's because the body did things that we don't understand.
And this response can also affect memory. When the defense circuitry is in control, some people “dissociate,” meaning they become disconnected from their physical sensations or sense of identity.
“People may describe feeling like they were floating or like they were in a movie, or a dream, and literally not experiencing the sensations and emotions that are arising in their body from that assault,” Hopper said. “When they're being interviewed later by an investigator or someone else, they may not have access to those emotions that were associated with the event.”
Walker says she remembers not being able to move during the assault.
“It was like this out-of-body experience,” she said. “I was, like, over myself. I felt paralyzed. I couldn't even, like, feel like my limbs.”
Other survivors CapRadio interviewed said they felt frozen during the attack. Some said that’s part of why they sometimes blame themselves for what happened.
Mandy Mount, a psychologist and founder of the sexual assault resource center at UC Irvine says it’s common for survivors to be confused about how they responded to an assault in the moment.
“There's a grief and a loss also associated with the feeling of not feeling safe or in control of your own body,” she said. “Whether that's because somebody else has violated it or it's because the body did things that we don't understand.”
Experts say when officers understand trauma and neuroscience, they can reduce further harm to survivors.
And Nicole Monroe, a detective with the Elk Grove Police Department, says being patient with survivors who are struggling to remember can also help law enforcement solve crimes.
“I will always tell the people that I interview, especially if it's fresh, you're going to remember things for who knows how long,” she said. “Smells will come back. Sights will come back. When you think of these things, give me a call and let me know, so that it can be added. Because little things like that are going to make a difference.”
A New Way To Interview
Historically, law enforcement officers have been trained to draw out specific information from victims of crime — whatever details they might need to solve a case.
But Carrie Hull, the former investigator who now teaches interviewing techniques, says there’s often a discrepancy between the details that stick in the survivor’s brain and the information a detective might consider pertinent to a case.
“The expectation is someone is supposed to come in, sit down, they're supposed to be ready to talk, they're supposed to know what to talk about,” she said. “They're going to tell you what happened to them from the beginning through the middle and then the end. That is a very traditional understanding of both just humans and then also memory and recall.”
For example, something that seems crucial to an investigator, such as the perpetrator’s hair color, may not have been a central detail to the survivor when their brain was in survival mode. But Hull says law enforcement officers aren’t always trained to understand.
“It is not uncommon for there to be a member of that team that still has a pretty traditional mindset, particularly about sexual violence cases that,‘Well, they just should tell us. And if they don't tell us, then we're going to move on to the next case,’ or there's some perception that it's their fault, then that we can't help them,” said Carrie Hull, the former Ashland Police Department detective.
Hull was one of the creators of forensic experiential trauma interviewing, which is now a full online course available to law enforcement and anyone else who interviews victims of trauma. It involves an overhaul to the way law enforcement officers usually ask questions.
“Most of our questioning is linear,” said Dave Thomas with the International Association of Chiefs of Police. “And what we realized is we have to ask questions in a way that that individual is able to provide information based on the experience that they've had.”
People who take Hull’s course learn techniques that can help someone discover a memory that they may not have had access to when they walked in the room. Interviewers are discouraged from paraphrasing, changing the interviewee’s words, interrupting or giving advice.
A survivor may also be more likely to recall details if they’re rested, comfortable and calm. Many police departments are installing “soft interview rooms,” or special spaces for interviewing people who have experienced trauma. These rooms are usually dimly lit, with a couch, a table, plants and other home-like furnishings.
Hull’s program relies on open-ended questions, such as asking a survivor what they can remember instead of drilling them on specific facts. She says the goal is to “collect the dots, then connect the dots.”
“What is the way to gather information where you're not leading?” she said. “How do you gather information from somebody where you are not introducing your own biases? How do you acknowledge what those biases are? Know that separation between interview and investigation? So those are some of the really core concepts that we work with.”
As for Annie Walker, she says she’s tried to move past the assault, but she gets hung up on the way law enforcement handled her case. And she thinks both police officers and survivors need more education on the way trauma affects memory.
“I imagine there's so many victims that truly feel and believe maybe they're crazy, or if other people are like, ‘How come you didn't remember that?’ They go, ‘Oh, yeah, I guess I should have remembered that,’” Walker said.
She says if survivors knew what to expect in terms of memory issues, it wouldn’t be so frustrating. “They need to feel like the way that things are happening in their mind is normal. Normal for them.”
Correction: This story originally misstated the location of Annie Walker's bruises. They were on her arms, legs, wrist and lower abdomen.