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Technology and Victimization: What Prosecutors and Law Enforcement Can do to Support Victims

This blog post was written in partnership with Rachel Gibson and Detective Bryan Franke who is a 31-year veteran of the Longmont Police Department. He is assigned to and instrumental in forming the Cyber Crimes Unit as well as the development of the Boulder County Forensics Lab.


The misuse of technology in cases where violence is prevalent has seen an increase over the last few years. More victims of violent crime may also experience technology facilitated abuse. “Estimates suggest that between 18 percent and 37 percent of adult Americans have experienced severe online harassment, including physical threats, sexual harassment, stalking, and sustained harassment (Anti-Defamation League, 2019; Duggan, 2017).” Victims and witnesses who have experienced intimidation and retaliation in their communities, may also encounter technology facilitated abuse. As we work with PSN sites, it is important for sites to understand the ways in which technology-facilitated abuse shows up and how it can manifest in cases where physical violence may be prevalent. “Scholars have noted that technology-facilitated behaviors are not uncommon tactics in the perpetration of stalking and interpersonal violence (Baum et al., 2009; King-Ries, 2011; Lenhart et al., 2016; Marganski and Melander, 2015).” So while victims of technology-facilitated abuse may not always experience other forms of violence, there are indicators that other tactics of abuse like stalking can be used to further the violence.


It is important for those working with victims of crime to understand that the use of technology to harass, stalk, and incite fear, is more common in crimes as we see the ways in which technology is more integral to everyday life. A safe home, a safe neighborhood is no longer just the physical aspects of life, a safe home and a safe neighborhood also includes digital lives.


If victims do not feel safe online, feelings of isolation, shame and the results of trauma may keep them from seeking out help.


1. Bryan, as you know, technology is evolving, and the misuse of technology is often showing up as another tool used to perpetrate crime against victims. We are seeing this show up in domestic violence cases more often. Why is it important for law enforcement and prosecutors to understand the use of technology in domestic violence cases?


Technology is a part of virtually everyone's lives now. The importance of technology when it comes to a sense of safety and ability to communicate is commonly understated and/or understood. However, it is a double edge sword, in that the same devices that make someone feel safer can also compromise their safety. Because of this, it is very important to have conversations around steps survivors can and should take when it comes to technology. Each conversation will be different as it must be guided by the type of technology the individual uses. As an example, if the survivor has a smartphone and a laptop, the conversation will be fairly straightforward and focused. But, if the survivor has a home security system that is online, a multitude of Internet of Things devices in their home, along with a smartphone and a couple computers, that conversation will be much more involved.


Helping survivors understand the risks and benefits allows them to make a more informed decision that is right for them. With knowledge comes power.


2. What do you think is the biggest issue facing law enforcement or the justice system in regards to technology?


The biggest issue right now is training, resources and funding. Many agencies were already struggling to find the resources to address this ever-growing problem. They are recognizing that technology facilitated crimes have grown exponentially and are not going away. The front line law enforcement agencies have been experiencing dynamics that are beyond their control for many months now. The impacts of these dynamics have been far reaching. Examples are shutting down units that were deemed specialized so that those resources could be applied to the basic services provided by agencies. There has also been an increase in the number of people leaving law enforcement careers, which is coupled with a rather large decline in people wanting to enter this career field. All this combined, has reduced the ability for agencies to put resources towards this complex area of crime. When officers are not trained on how to investigate crimes involving technology, oftentimes the response is less than ideal.


This lack of training and understanding is also experienced in the prosecution and judicial arena as well.


In order to present a case to a jury or court, the prosecutor must understand the nuances of technology and how it was leveraged/abused to facilitate the crime(s). There are many factors that are at hand with this struggle for prosecutors, but funding, resources and time are at the top. Prosecutors typically have a very large caseload they are responsible for. As much as they would like to dedicate their full energy and time to a case, they simply are forced to divide their attention and time amongst all their cases.


At the judicial level, many judges don't really understand the technology component of crimes as well. They often are making decisions based on what the prosecutor and officer/investigator, and witnesses have shared during the process. However, beyond this during the investigation phase, judges are reviewing warrants, court orders, and subpoenas for information/evidence to advance the investigation and gather factual information. Oftentimes, if the officer/investigator doesn't understand the technology side of things, they are not able to document it in the affidavit, which is part of the vicious circle we find ourselves in. If you don't understand it, you don't know what to search for. If you kind of understand it, at least to the level that you apply for some form of legal process, but can't articulate it to someone else, it is hard to proceed past that point. This pattern follows all the way through the legal process.


3. How can law enforcement and prosecutors help support survivors/victims of crime who are experiencing technology facilitated harassment or abuse?

The easiest first step is to truly listen to what is being shared by the survivors/victims. Not just hear them, but truly listen and ask questions to make sure what they are sharing is understood. The process of understanding what is happening, will oftentimes bring to light items of evidence that should be collected to either prove or disprove a particular method of abuse is taking place. Oftentimes, the survivors/victims can be instrumental in gathering this information for the investigator.


The other thing I encourage people to do is reach out to their community and develop relationships with people in the technology industry that is oftentimes right in their own backyard. These people are a wealth of information, knowledge and resources which may help with these types of investigations.


The other approach here is to develop partnerships and collaborative teams, working with state, local and tribal law enforcement, USA’s to jointly work on these crimes. Developing these partnerships, especially when the use of technology is involved, is important to ensuring that victims get the support and justice they deserve.


This is a great way to include victim service providers and community based organizations to help victims who experience this type of crime. Many victims who experience this often feel shame, anxiety, and fear with their intimate photos being posted, receiving harassing calls or texts, or threats and intimidation tactics to silence victims online. Partnering with local victim service providers, can help victims to feel supported, provide trauma-informed and culturally specific resources and ensure that a victim-centered approach is taken.


This type of crime is unique in that victims are seeing the crimes play out on their social media, in their email, or from having intimate images being posted on sites.


Rachel

Great points, some other things to think about as someone who has helped victims, is to think about how they safety plan around technology. We have to help victims assess technology abuse. What types of things are happening? Victims may not know the exact terminology, but they know that their phone is turning off, their emails are being accessed or they are being followed.


Victims should do an audit of the technology they are using, their children may be using and identify the way that information can be accessed or shared. It is important for them to document what is going on either by writing it down, or saving the information in a safe place the abusive person does not have access to.


Most importantly, telling a victim to get off the internet should not be the first option or only option given. We know that abuse escalates when things change, and this could be an indicator to the abusive person that something has changed. Plus, it takes power from victims who may still want to use technology, especially when you think about how COVID-19 has isolated so many people. We have to give them the tools to understand privacy, safety and security, and let them make the decisions that are best for themselves.


4. What is one tip you would leave to prosecutors and law enforcement as they work with victims of crime?


Don't be afraid to ask questions. This is an ever changing and evolving platform and nobody can keep up with all of it. There are no wrong questions, beyond the one that is not asked. Make sure that you understand fully what is being reported, look at examples of it if possible. Remain curious and open to learning.


What are some tips and strategies law enforcement can use to work with victims of technology-facilitated abuse?


1. Develop a good rapport with victims. Many victims who have experienced sexual assault, domestic violence, stalking and harassment are often experiencing trauma, guilt and shame. It is important to establish good rapport as it will impact the evidence collection and investigation process. Victims who feel believed and supported by law enforcement and other court officials, will feel like they can reach out if things escalate or they remember new information or evidence.


2. It is important to help the survivor feel empowered. Survivors have access to large amounts of information that may be saved and backed up somewhere. It is important to help them understand the limitations to evidence collection, so strongly encourage them to not delete any evidence, but to save it somewhere safe, if they do not want to have to look at it.


3. When technology evidence is being admitted into court, it is important to consider if possible communicating this to the other side. An agreement in place means it is much easier to get the evidence introduced, than to try and do this through the legal process or during the trial.


4. Help survivors identify what and all technology is being misused. We know that testimony can change especially for those who have experienced trauma and stress. Victims may often feel overwhelmed and may not know what to share in terms of technology-facilitated abuse. You may have to help victims identify the tools and devices that are being misused and help them identify what behaviors may be criminal activities.


5. Work with survivors on identifying what to document. Digital evidence can include many things that are helpful to a case, and a lot of information that may not be important. Many victims are not familiar with how the justice system works. Clearly outline to survivors what information you need and how they should provide that to you. It will be important to let them know what they should and should not do, so that they don’t accidentally impact their case negatively, delete information, and ensure that information is backed up in multiple places for access later.


By using the tips and strategies listed above, those working on Project Safe Neighborhoods like law enforcement, prosecutors, victim service professionals and more can work collaboratively to help those who experience technology-facilitated abuse and empower victims for their future.


Below is more information that can help as you work with victims around the misuse of technology:


Legal Systems Toolkit: Understanding & Investigating Technology Misuse


Judicial Toolkit: Resources on Technology Abuse for Judges and Judicial Officers


Technology Safety & Privacy: A Toolkit for Survivors


WomensLaw.org: Abuse Using Technology


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