No more 'Just the facts', Baltimore cops trained to take empathetic approach

BALTIMORE - We think of them as tough as nails, handling violence in Maryland's toughest city.  But experts want Baltimore police to take a different approach when handling victims of crime.

Baltimore's police officers handle countless investigations, dealing with the harsh realities that come with policing crime day after day.

"It's very easy to slip into the shield, where you're ‘Just the facts, ma'am'," said victim rights attorney Steve Kelly. 

But victims assistance experts like Kelly say focusing solely on the facts as police work to solve a crime could be counterproductive.  That's why Kelly, a representative from the Maryland State Police and a criminologist from the University of Baltimore were brought into BPD's Comstat room to school sergeants and lieutenants on empathy.  The messages they received during the special training will be passed down through the ranks, with lessons on the importance of not just questioning victims, but also asking questions about them.

"It's almost like investing a little more upfront and making that connection and building that rapport is going to pay dividends," said Dr. Heather Pfeifer, a criminal justice professor with University of Baltimore.

That rapport, according to Pfeifer, builds trust between the community and the department and strengthens investigations.  She says the foundation for officers should be handling each victim as an individual, no matter how many cases an officer has seen.

"To have someone say, ‘Yes, I've responded to a thousand domestic violence cases and yes there are some similarities to this, but there is a unique element and I want you to share that with me," Pfeifer told us.

Dr. Pfeifer shared the case of a Baltimore sexual abuse victim to prove her point.  The boy, an artist, shared his work before committing suicide.  She says he hoped it would become a learning tool for police, who with the help of experts, can break down the messages in his paintings to help them dial into the *real people* behind every victim of crime.

Baltimore Police Sergeant Stephanie Lansey believes it's a message that works.  She says, "You can't just turn yourself off and not be a person.  You have to be able to empathize, sympathize with the victim."

Experts say officers also need to show support, not just to further the investigation.  That's why part of Tuesday's training focused on resources officers can use in the field to assist victims. 

"We're not expecting law enforcement officers to be social workers and to be therapists," said Kelly.

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