Alyssa Invernizzi, Summer 2023 intern, reports on a webinar organized by ELECT THB Program entitled “Human Trafficking in the Criminal Justice System: Investigate Interviews & Psychological Control”.
ELECT THB, funded by the EU internal security, held a final project webinar on June 21st. The webinar was led by Jokinen Anniina, Senior Program Officer, and instructed by Dr. Julia Korkman, a professor in legal psychology with extensive experience in investigating, interviewing, and assessing witnesses. She focuses mainly on psychological conditions in the legal sphere and human trafficking trials. One of IAWJ’s programs is building systems to end trafficking. We want to ensure that trials are carefully researched and that endings are evaluated from victims’ perspectives. This webinar precisely captures that. It centers on five themes: memory, the foundations of investigating interviews and their correlation to trafficking cases, the traumatic experiences and encounters in the justice system, psychological coercion and control, and the losses in interpretation.
Korkman first explains the development of autobiographical memory and how memory expectations by the legal system are flawed. Autobiographical memory can shift to tell a different story than what happened over time or when exposing it to multiple people. Human trafficking victims, especially of sexual violence, fail to see themselves as victims. This is unfortunate as the pressure of being victimized diminishes their voices. Another component of autobiographical memory is that it varies with cultural factors and depends on social surroundings. For instance, when an officer asks questions about a specific time, it is almost impossible to correctly recall that because the brain is not wired to remember specific time frames. She states that if you ask someone to describe a 20-dollar bill, they typically cannot tell you much. When thinking about the memory process (encoding, storage, and retrieval), the trauma of these life-threatening situations is what victims will remember first.
The key to getting details is by carefully investigating the interview questions that victims are asked. The issue is with closed and leading questions. It is essential to focus on recall rather than recognition memory. If you ask them to say everything they remember instead of a physical description of the perpetrator, that will prevent them from changing the story. This relates to a car accident study where participants were asked how fast the cars went “when they smashed/collided/bumped/hit/contacted each other.” By changing the wording, they believe something more severe happened when it likely did not. To avoid this, the UN established the Mendez Principles, a new standard for effective interviewing by police. This can prevent “losing two-thirds of the story” by interviewing victims immediately after the incident and asking them not to report their statements repeatedly. Remembering that these victims can be stressed when describing these events is important. Specific traumatic memories of the abused and those previously trafficked often have flashbacks, becoming impossible to forget. However, trafficking victims may be reluctant to disclose information to the police. Those who encounter sexual violence may feel pressured to stay quiet, fearing that matters will only worsen if they talk.
Victims also experience psychological coercion and control. Korkman described these as “invisible chains,” which is interesting as victims may feel trapped in their thoughts after everything. In contrast, the perpetrator may create the idea of having a “positive interaction” by pretending to be their friend/ partner. Suppose the victim is susceptible to vulnerability in the past. What changes the fact that they will render themselves to the same vulnerability as this, thus changing their story and protecting them? Another item that can severely affect the story of victims is isolation. When restricted from other contacts, that can be scary because those who felt “a connection” to their perpetrator may feel like they cannot relate to anyone else. Therefore, police must know how to respond to and interact with these victims since they generally lack that guidance. In particular, when engaging with evasive and hostile victims, they should stick to the Mendez principles and test prior research that deals with unresponsiveness. When victims have a past of being trafficked, it cannot be easy to separate between different experiences. Korkman advised the audience to ask about repeated events in the practice interview phase, if something happened once or more, or label specific episodes. Sticking to the timeline of events from first to last will keep the information concrete.
Lastly, a problem that victims experience when being interviewed is the loss of translation/ interpretation. Many victims speak another language and need a translator. However, the information exchanged between the officer and the victim through the translator is confusing. Neutral words in one language or interpreters avoiding direct translation out of “courtesy” can change the story. Korkman recommended that the training of interviewers and interpreters should occur together. Interpreters must hear the question and understand why they should avoid leading questions. Overall, the ELECT THB project progressed so much in the research of human trafficking victims across the world. The women judges IAWJ represent find this topic compelling and see it as a real issue, especially since those targeted are young women. ELECT THB’s curriculum sheds light on the judicial community and reveals its long-term impact. So, we thank them for holding this informational webinar about their project. Thanks again to Dr.Korkman for organizing this lesson.