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Q&A with police training sergeant

Dan Scott, a training sergeant with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, answers questions about investigations into abuse of the developmentally disabled.

Why do police or sheriff’s departments need a special victims unit?
“Child abuse and sexual assault needs a special unit because of the expert level needed to prosecute and investigate,” Scott says. “It’s a better practice to have one because certain cases require a great deal of training above and beyond what a normal detective would have.”

How does an interview with a dependent adult or minor differ from the kind of questioning a police officer would typically do with a victim?
“Dealing with dependent adults is not part of the normal daily activities. But we have been called in because of the uniqueness of a case,” Scott says. “With a child, you need to spend more time to build rapport, where an adult understands they need to talk to the police or social worker. When somebody doesn’t understand the criminal system, you have to develop a bond, where they feel comfortable. You have to understand their developmental and cognitive levels. Detectives who don’t specialize in this field don’t understand the damaging effects of a traumatic event, where they will shut down a victim. They have trouble recalling events. Their memory is not functioning like it normally would. If a detective doesn’t understand trauma, they aren’t going to understand what’s going on or bridge that gap.”

How many years does an officer typically have to work before making the transition to detective?
Scott says officers normally need eight to 10 years to get to that level. Becoming an SVU detective requires a significant amount of additional courses beyond the department’s six-month detective training, including 40 hours of a sexual assault course, 40 hours of a child abuse investigative course, a class on interviewing and interrogating suspects, as well as one on understanding social media.

Scott says: “They have to learn how to interview victims and suspects, collect and analyze evidence, take photographs, write search warrants, file cases, build rapport with the district attorney’s office, deal with sexual assault centers, deal with DNA, learn about different databases used throughout the county.”

How can you spot abuse in somebody with special needs?
Scott says that if you suspect physical abuse, you should look at the person and for unexplained injuries. Sexual abuse may have no physical signs.

“You also have to understand that even though the person may be developmentally disabled and in need of special care, they can still consent,” he says. The sheriff’s department offers training on how to spot abuse, and representatives from schools and public entities are invited to call in bureaus and request training.

If you have a loved one at a developmental center and suspect abuse, how can you request an outside investigation?
Scott suggests first going through the center’s chain of command.

 “If you’re not happy with it, not being treated fairly, take it up the chain of command,” he says. “Beyond that, contact the district attorney. Go to the attorney general. Keep going up that chain of command until you get a satisfying answer. It might not be the answer you want, but they should be able to cite penal code and back it up.”

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