As part of today’s SPECIAL REPORT: Sexual Assault in Wilton, we asked Captain Rob Cipolla of the Wilton Police Department to talk about the topic.
GOOD Morning Wilton: It’s timely right now, the amount that sexual assault is in the national conversation. The awareness is heightened. Has there been any kind of latent effect that with all the talk, where someone has said, “Now I want to come forward and report something.” Have you seen that?
Capt. Rob Cipolla: I’ve got some of the data here from a local perspective as well as Connecticut’s data. Over the last three years, locally, our investigations relative to sexual assault complaints has been maintained. In 2016, we had six reported incidences, 2017 we had five, and this year we’ve had four so far.
From a state level, it has remained pretty consistent throughout the years. The thing to be cautious about is in 2014 for the purposes of crime reporting, they changed the definition of what rape is. So, that’s why you probably see a national jump in the amount of instances because of a definition change.
But locally statistics have remained relatively consistent in terms of reported offenses. So, to answer your question, we haven’t seen this influx because of what we’re seeing in the public discussion.
GMW: Is there a way to break it out with anything you share in the high school or youth versus in the adult population?
Cipolla: In terms of people coming forward to report? Traditionally, The majority of the time in these investigations, we are receiving the reports sometimes days, weeks, months, maybe even years after it happened.
It is more rare that we get the case where we’re responding to an actual scene where this just occurred. Which, obviously, from a physical evidence standpoint, makes that case is a little bit easier to investigate when we can secure the scene, rather than the one that comes to us days after. But we understand the reason behind that and why it may take someone that length of time to come forward.
From a police perspective, it makes it factual, evidence gathering obviously more trying. But awareness is key, similar to what we do with domestic violence. I think there is a great deal of awareness to the issue now–that’s why we’re having this conversation. To say that we’ve seen that translate in terms of our statistics, the answer would be no.
GMW: When someone comes in, what’s the process that they go through here with the department, assuming that it’s not a crime scene that you can investigate?
Cipolla: The difference is, when we get called to a scene where this just happened, more than likely you’re going to be dealing with the patrol officers on scene. Now, we would still make that phone call, depending on what time is it, if it’s off hours, and we don’t have a detective working, we need the detectives to come in to process the scene and to speak with the victim.
What we try to do in those cases where maybe it’s being reported days or weeks after, we don’t want to have the victim be interviewed by multiple people. We would prefer that we would assign it to a detective and they would build that rapport and relationship where the victim feels comfortable with them to divulge the facts and circumstances.
What we’ve seen different from maybe even when I first started, is more of an awareness of the trauma that’s involved in these type of cases, and similar to domestic violence, how that can affect a victim’s recount of what exactly happened.
Traditionally as police, we’re taught when we’re investigating a crime, we want to know kind of immediately, quickly, what happened, the who, what, when, where and why? Research has now shown specific to these kind of cases that sometimes giving the victim a sleep cycle or two will help them maybe recount more of what actually happened, and so that’s a deviation.
Now, it’s important initially to have an idea of where this happened, and get those facts. Is there a scene somewhere that we should go secure and get our search warrants so we can gather that physical evidence? And then we can rehash that victim interview maybe after a sleep cycle or two when it’s had time to possibly jog her memory.
The other important thing is with the trauma-based investigations … domestic violence, sexual assault … is oftentimes in police work we’re very trying to look linear–all right, just the facts. What happened? All right, what happened next? Trying to get that linear pattern, chronological account, of the events, the who, what, when, where, why.
When someone experiences a trauma like this, the biological, the physiological, the neurological effects of the brain will affect their memory and how they recount things.
So, sometimes keying in on more questions regarding sensations … like, you can probably speak to it, we all can … that maybe not associated with a trauma, but a smell in the air reminds you of something.
Those kind of things, those kind of sensory type questions may be able to reset a victim in terms of recounting some more linear-type facts, rather than, “All right, what time did this happen? Where were you? Who were you with?” Those kind of questions, which traditionally are the questions we need to answer in investigations.
But in these types of investigations, we have to be more aware of, all right, well, maybe we start with these sensory things and then start working towards the actual facts.
GMW: Clearly there is very special, particular training that officers have to go through.
GMW: Does everybody in the department go through that, or do you have particular officers who do?
Cipolla: As police, we’re mandated to keep our certification. I think it’s like 60 hours of training. There’s core training that we have to have every three years–sexual assault investigations is one of them, just like domestic violence, just like investigations with juveniles. That’s the core training that our officers will go to at least every three years.
Our detectives will go to more advanced training regarding those interview techniques. Evidence gathering and things specific to those investigations.
GMW: I know, especially through your work in particular, you work very closely with both the Wilton Domestic Violence Task Force, which you’re a member of, as well as regionally and in Fairfield County. Whether it was something that happened recently or something that happened in the past, does a counselor get called in from The Center for Sexual Assault Crisis Counseling [The Center] in Stamford?
Cipolla: Yes. Just like on a domestic violence case, we work with the Domestic Violence Crisis Center. There’s also The Center.
Sometimes in these cases we may get a call from the hospital that the victim’s at the hospital, they never even came to the police, but now they want to get the police involved, and we’ll go there. The hospital’s mandated to call that advocacy group if they’re in a hospital situation. Now, whether or not the victim wants to engage those services, that’s their decision.
But, sure, we’ll use those resources, because it is a great resource for talking about trauma. We talk about it in training, but when we start getting into neurological, biological, physiological effects, it’s the social workers and advocates in those organizations, that’s their job. They’re trauma-informed care specialists. That’s where the collaboration between police and those advocacy groups bridges the gap to really get that victim all their support.
GMW: Typically do you have a representative from the Center come and be part of that interview process?
Cipolla: That is an option where, one, if we as the police felt it would be helpful to the investigation, the victim was open to it, they will sit in and assist in that respect for that kind of investigation.
GMW: Do you tend to call a female officer?
Cipolla: That’s something that if we’re dealing with a female victim, we will ask, “Would you be more comfortable speaking with a female officer or a female detective?” So, sometimes that is the case.
If someone were to come in the door right now and say, it was Saturday, it’s something that immediately a phone call goes up the chain that we got this investigation.
Now, what’s the best way to handle it? Should we get one of our detectives in to begin work with that victim, so that we’re not having those multiple touch points? We’re trying to keep that circle small in terms of who the victim is comfortable with and speaking with.
GMW: In terms of reporting, if somebody is thinking about coming forward, what should they do?
Cipolla: Simply just come to the police department and let us start our investigation, our objective, fact-finding investigation. I think we should be cautious about some of this stuff we’re seeing where it’s being played out in public. That’s only going to hinder our job as police, in terms of gathering the facts and getting a true, unbiased account of what happened.
Sure, there are times as police that we’ll rely on the media to use you guys as a resource, like to get a photograph out or to say, “Hey, if you have any new information, contact the police.” But that should be a communication between us, the victim, witnesses, suspects.
That shouldn’t be something that’s being played out publicly, because we have statutes in place in the state of Connecticut that are specific to victim confidentiality. We don’t put their names or addresses or anything identifying about them in reports or arrest warrants, because of the re-victimization and the trauma that’s involved.
Now for some people, I mean, that could be possibly part of the healing process, just speaking about it. But if there’s a criminal investigation component, let us do our job in terms of gathering the objective facts, before a lot of stuff out there and now, everyone seeing it began some biased commentary in terms of what happened.
GMW: What’s the statute of limitations in Connecticut?
Cipolla: The statute of limitations has changed over time. I don’t have the exact dates, and I can’t speak specifically. When we get these investigations, it’s something we always look at. We work closely with the prosecutors on these cases, because they are very sensitive. I do know that if there is a DNA involved, the statute of limitations is increased, sometimes up to, I think, 20 years.
It’s something every time we get one of these cases, when it is being reported a considerably lengthy time since the actual incident, that’s one of the first things we look at is what’s our statute of limitations here?
Even in those circumstances where maybe a statute of limitations is totaled, that doesn’t mean we can’t assist that victim in terms of getting them in touch with an advocacy group to help their healing process.
GMW: What are other important things for the community to know about this?
Cipolla: The sensitive nature of it, I think we should be cautious. We’re the police, we’re here to do our criminal investigations. Know that when we do have someone come forward as a victim to us to initiate an investigation, we treat it very sensitively. Once these investigations are opened, in our records management system they’re locked down so that only the people directly involved in these cases have access to reports. We’re trying to do our job to keep the victim safe and help them in their process, as well as hold an offender accountable.
That’s really important for people to know. Because I’m sure that’s a huge part of why they don’t come forward.
Whether it’s domestic violence or sexual assault, there are some inherent things about the criminal justice system that makes it a long process, which could be difficult for a victim in terms of coming forward and going through that.
But that’s why we specifically work with the advocacy groups, because they can explain that process so that victims are aware of what the next steps are. Nothing catches them by surprise, and it can be explained that this is possibly going to take a few months to years, if there is even an arrest made, and it being adjudicated in court.
To read all the stories in today’s series, follow these links:
If you or someone you care about has experienced a sexual assault, there are resources for assistance, including the National Sexual Assault Hotline 800.656.HOPE (800.656.4673) or the RAINN website. Locally, there is counseling, advocacy and victim support available from The Center (for Sexual Assault Crisis Counseling and Education) which has a hotline 203.329.2929 to help victims, or people who suspect someone they know has been abused or the victim of sexual violence. Wilton Police can be reached at 203.834.6260.