New training, improved outcomes led to statewide reform
West Valley City, Utah — Detective Justin Boardman had a reliable way of clearing many of the rape cases that crossed his desk.
When the only witness was the victim, he would call her, warn that it was a “he said, she said” case that would be tough to investigate, and hope that she would drop it.
Usually, she did.
Then one day, Boardman ducked into a class on the trauma caused by rape. He heard scientific explanations for why rape victims could not scream or fight back, and why they often initially struggled to remember details of the crime.
Soon he realized that he had closed dozens of cases in which the victim likely was telling the truth. It shook him to the point of tears.
“I did a lot of damage,” he said.
Chastened, the veteran detective helped the police department in Utah’s second largest city transform the way it investigated sex crimes. Within a year, the number of cases sent to prosecutors by West Valley City police doubled. Convictions tripled. Inspired in part by that success, Utah’s Republican-led Legislature adopted reforms last year that will require all new officers to be trained in brain trauma, and make available more specialized three-day training to all detectives who investigate sex assault cases.
Utah’s shift is a promising sign of how a state can do more to help rape victims get the justice that so often eludes them — if everyone involved is working with the same priorities.
But the changes were eight years in the making. Police chiefs, lawmakers and victims of sexual assaults here didn’t know how badly the system was failing until a police officer responding to an attack on a young woman asked a nurse, “Was she really raped?”
The question came at the end of a long night.
Julie Valentine had conducted hundreds of sex assault exams working as a nurse in a Salt Lake City-area hospital. Her patient one evening eight years ago was like so many of them: a traumatized 17-year-old girl raped at a party.
Valentine said her heart broke knowing that the girl’s life would never be the same. But when the police officer sent to pick up the sexual exam kit questioned whether a rape had even occurred, Valentine became angry. After a sleepless night, she began asking herself some questions.
Why had she been called as a witness in only one case? What happened to all those other women who had reported their assaults to police?
Valentine, who was studying for her Ph.D. while working part-time as a sex assault nurse, decided to find out. She pulled 270 sex assault case files from across Utah, trying to document what happened after each case was reported. Her findings, published in early 2014, surprised even her.
Police in Utah rarely handed sex assault cases over to prosecutors, and when they did, charges were routinely declined. Utah had one of the highest rates of sex assault reports in the country, yet only 6 percent of the police cases led to a conviction.
“That was the match that lit the bonfire,” Valentine said.
Media attention on Valentine’s report outraged advocacy groups and the public. Politicians vowed reforms, but it would be years before they would come. Some law enforcement leaders pushed back, calling the study flawed and defending their practices.
“It’s a very narrow study,” the Salt Lake District Attorney said at the time.
The Salt Lake City police chief said his investigators were “passionate” about solving the crimes.
But one prosecutor knew Valentine was right.
By 2012, Donna Kelly thought she had learned all there was to know about prosecuting sex crimes.
Kelly had tried cases for more than 20 years, first in Oregon and eventually in Provo, Utah, home to Brigham Young University. After taking a new job for a state agency to train police and prosecutors, she flew to San Diego to attend a national conference on violence against women. Some sessions focused on an emerging area of brain science: How the trauma of rape and other forms of assault can affect a victim’s behavior.
Kelly thought she would be wasting her time. Instead, “I was stunned by what I didn’t know,” she said.
She went back to her hotel room and started replaying cases in her head. It had never made sense to Kelly when victims often couldn’t explain why they didn’t scream or fight back.
Now it did. Under stress, the brain can shut down and a victim freezes in place, out of fear or as a means of self-preservation.
“Trauma makes it so they can’t scream,” she said.
It frustrated Kelly when victims couldn’t recall details as simple as the color of their rapists’ shirts. Now she understood that they weren’t recording those memories.
Kelly realized that the same behaviors that she had cited to dismiss many of the cases that crossed her desk could instead be used as evidence that the rape happened. And if police truly understood the effects of trauma, they would arrest and charge more rapists.
She returned to her new training job “a woman possessed,” she said. Her classes now focused extensively on what she learned.
One day, a skeptical detective sat in the audience.
Justin Boardman became a police officer at 33, after stints selling clothes and furniture. He was good at catching shoplifters, which led to work as a security guard in West Valley City department stores. The police officers he met urged him to go to the police academy.
Soon he was in uniform with the West Valley City Police Department. At just over 6 feet tall with a shaved head, Boardman looks the part. He was often so quick to use force on a suspect, he said he earned the nickname “Over Boardman.”
He said his use of force was always justified, “but honestly, I was just scared.”
But Boardman also had some quirks that could help put victims and suspects alike at ease. He would wear colorful knee-high women’s socks under his uniform and sometimes would drive with a rubber chicken in the passenger’s side of his squad car to get laughs.
After working patrol for eight years, Boardman was made a detective with West Valley’s special victims unit.
West Valley City is a sprawling, diverse suburb of Salt Lake City. Its police department is one of Utah’s largest and busiest, and Boardman excelled at working child sex abuse cases. In his first year, his peers named him detective of the year.
But when it came to adult rapes, Boardman admits he had no idea what he was doing.
He would tell victims that their cases would never go anywhere. If victims didn’t call him back in a few days, he would close a case by noting the victim “refuses to cooperate.”
He thought cases where victims had memory gaps or didn’t fight off their attackers were impossible to prove.
“You just closed them out,” he said. “No one believed them.”
That’s just the way his department trained him, he said. One of his supervisors, he recalled, told him, “You’ll know a real rape when you see one.”
Then came the day in 2013, when Boardman heard Donna Kelly speak. Suddenly, the behavior of the victims in many of his cases started to make more sense. Eager to learn more, he went to another course she taught.
Then, while cooking dinner one night, he started thinking about all the victims he had doubted over the years. He even booked one woman into jail because he thought she was lying about being assaulted.
Guilt washed over him. He knew he had ruined victims’ lives.
“I had felt like I was doing a good job. I wasn’t,” he said.
Boardman was so distraught that he considered stepping down as a detective and returning to patrol. He said Kelly and victim advocates persuaded him to stay and put his new insight to work.
One of the first things he and Kelly did was develop a simple, one-page set of guidelines that he and other detectives could use when interviewing rape victims: Approach the victim in a compassionate, empathetic way. Tell the person that it’s OK if they don’t remember or don’t know. Ask open-ended questions and don’t interrupt. Ask what they felt during an assault. Ask them about sights, smells and sounds to jog memories. If tough questions need to be asked, explain why. When done, explain the next steps.
Lee Russo came to the West Valley City police department in 2013 with a reputation as a reformer. It was badly needed, and not just for the way the department handled sex crimes.
A West Valley City officer had been charged for shooting an unarmed woman. And before that, the department was heavily criticized for its handling of the 2009 disappearance of Susan Powell, a mother of two suspected to have been killed by her husband, who was never charged. Two years later, the husband murdered their two children before killing himself.
As part of changing West Valley’s culture, Russo told his officers that he had an open door. Boardman took advantage of it, sharing concerns about how patrol officers and detectives handled sex assault cases. Rapists were going free, he said.
Boardman described the different ways the department could handle these cases. He suggested the department contract with Valentine to audit whether the new approach led to more arrests, charges and convictions.
Russo said yes to both the change in interviews and to Valentine’s study. And he went even further, mandating that all his more than 200 sworn officers be taught how trauma affects victims.
“When he brought that forward to me, it made complete sense,” Russo said.
Not everyone was open to the new approach. Boardman said some of his superiors were “old school” and opposed his ideas, forcing him to go directly to his chief.
Russo ordered other reforms. Victim advocates needed to be involved as soon possible. All cases needed to be screened in person to make sure the investigations were thorough. All rape kits had to be tested.
Other, more subtle changes were made. Instead of interviewing victims in the same cramped bare room where they interrogated suspects, officers renovated a larger, more home like space outfitted with couches and table lamps.
Russo’s goal was wider than justice for the victim. He wanted to help them recover from their assault.
“It went far beyond just simply an investigation, identifying a suspect and getting it sent to prosecution. It was about healing for the victim,” he said.
Kirby Griffiths felt like a frantic mess. She had waited three days to report her rape. Sitting across from Boardman in the newly remodeled interview room, she doubted he would believe her.
Boardman asked Griffiths to tell her story. He asked what she remembered about the room and about how she was feeling at the time.
“The questions that Justin asked me, it really triggered a lot of things that I had not thought about,” Griffiths said.
She described being pinned against a sink in a small bathroom. She remembered the man kicking red floor mats with his feet, realizing then that she was going to be raped.
Then she described fighting so hard “for a week it felt like I was in a gym.”
The interview pointed Boardman toward evidence that he otherwise might have missed, he said. He got a search warrant and corroborated the size of the bathroom and the red rugs on the floor. He noted a photo taken of a bruise on Griffiths’ inner thigh, made from a thumb print.
The district attorney filed attempted rape charges. In October 2016, the man pleaded guilty.
By sentencing, Griffiths said almost all of her friends had abandoned her, siding with the attacker. In the courtroom, he appeared to be surrounded by supporters. She had advocates and Boardman.
“You’re so strong,” she recalls him telling her. “You’ve got this.”
The courtroom quieted as she read a statement describing how the assault destroyed her life. She lost friends. She gave up modeling and struggled to work. She felt worthless. She lives in fear, never letting anyone come into her home anymore. She was sometimes too afraid to even walk to her car.
As she spoke, Griffiths felt something new: strength. Finally, she was able to overcome her fear of confronting the man who had admitted assaulting her.
When she finished, some of the spectators in the gallery embraced her. They were victims, too, but their cases had gone nowhere. They thanked her for her courage.
Griffiths then watched a bailiff handcuff the man who attacked her and walk him out of the courtroom.
“It was the most exhilarating moment of my life.”
When Julie Valentine, now a professor, finished her audit of sexual assault cases investigated by West Valley City police, Russo had one word to describe it: “relief.”
The percentage of cases prosecuted quadrupled, from 6 to 24 percent. The percentage of cases that ended with a conviction tripled, from 6 to 22 percent.
Valentine’s audit of West Valley City consisted of only 64 cases and, because of the study’s design, it’s not possible to know which of the department’s reforms led to the improved outcomes.
But, said Russo, “It was so validating after taking such a risk.”
The reforms also drew strong reviews from victims surveyed. Ninety-one percent said they felt respected by the first officer to take their report, while 90 percent said they trusted their detectives.
Valentine’s survey of the West Valley City officers showed that before the reforms, 67 percent felt confident investigating a sex crime. After the reforms that rose to 90 percent.
West Valley City isn’t the first police department to overhaul its approach to sexual assault cases, but few have produced such dramatic or measurable results.
One of the more notable reform efforts took place in Missoula, Mont., after the U.S. Department of Justice found widespread failings in that city’s handling of rape cases in 2012. New policies and procedures resulted in a more positive experience for victims, local professionals say, but prosecution rates didn’t improve.
“More victims are reporting, however law enforcement doesn’t refer a corresponding number of new cases for prosecution,” said Missoula County Attorney Kirsten Pabst.
In Minnesota, where police refer only one-quarter of rape cases to prosecutors, a state task force is working on numerous reforms that could lead to better investigations and more prosecutions. The agency that licenses police also is developing plans for specialized sexual assault training for officers and for a set of guidelines for investigating the crimes.
West Valley City’s success spurred Utah lawmakers to pass legislation in 2017 that requires testing of nearly all rape kits. The bill also required the state’s police licensing board to develop an advanced training that includes “understanding the impact of trauma on a victim.” The Legislature also approved spending $1.2 million on the training, so that departments won’t have to pay for their officers to go to the classes.
“My goal is to have all officers across the state get this training,” said Scott Stephenson, director of Utah’s Peace Officer Standards and Training.
Not a single legislator voted against the reforms.
“We are going to have better justice for victims,” said Bob Church, who heads one of the Utah agencies in charge of police training. “We’d love to see this spread across the country.”
Chief Russo retired last year. The new chief, Colleen Jacobs, said all new officers and detectives are required to take trauma-informed training, and that detectives still use the guidelines developed by Boardman and Kelly.
Valentine, meanwhile, is at work on another study to see whether West Valley City’s improved outcomes have continued. Early results look promising, she said.
Kelly has returned to prosecuting sex crimes. She said she and others are seeing far better investigations by police, which is allowing more cases to be charged. And if a case goes to trial, prosecutors frequently use expert witnesses to explain to juries how trauma can affect a victim’s behavior.
Two years after he began pushing for changes in his department, Boardman was sent back to patrol. It wasn’t a demotion, but Boardman said he would have preferred to continue working on sex assault cases. Six months later, in 2017, he left the department. He’s now one of several consultants who travel the country training officers on brain trauma. In the last of week of November, he conducted two days of sessions open to all officers in Ramsey County.
He said the type of change experienced by West Valley City can happen in Minnesota. But law enforcement will have to admit they’re handling cases wrong and have the courage to drastically alter their practices, he said.
“Don’t be afraid of taking the risk,” Boardman said. “Because we can’t do any worse.”
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