Tucked down a hallway in the newly redesigned University of Louisiana at Lafayette Police Department station is a cheerful closed interview room with cushy blue leather chairs, throw pillows and nature photos.

The space feels more like a friend’s living room than a location used for police work. That’s the idea, UL police Lt. Darren Zachary said.

The “soft” interview room is a dedicated space for sexual assault and domestic violence survivors to feel comfortable sharing their experiences with law enforcement officers. Studies about trauma-informed responses to sexual assault show interview spaces can affect how survivors remember details about their attack, Zachary said.

At the UL police station, the normal interview room is soundproofed with black foam and has harsh fluorescent lighting. It’s hard to feel safe when you’re being interviewed in the same room suspected criminals are, he said.

“We’re asking a young man or a young woman that’s been assaulted to come forward to strangers and to reveal some of the most intimate, traumatizing events that have ever happened to them,” Zachary said. “By providing an area like this, I like to call it providing a comfortable spot for survivors to come and talk about a difficult situation.”

Zachary was inspired to implement the space after learning about soft interview rooms at the End Violence Against Women International annual conference. When ULPD began planning the station’s renovation in 2017, Zachary proposed reserving a space for the department to build its own soft interview room.

This spring, when the department moved back into the completed Bittle Hall station, Zachary began searching for partners to complete the space. He found Project Beloved: The Molly Jane Mission, a nonprofit serving sexual assault survivors based in Fort Worth, Texas.

The nonprofit was founded in 2018, just a year after Tracy Matheson found her daughter, Molly Jane Matheson, dead in her Fort Worth apartment on April 10, 2017. Molly Jane had been raped and strangled to death.

Matheson said she knew she needed to act after losing her daughter.

While Matheson wasn’t an expert in the field of sexual assault response, she knew she could make a tangible difference. She researched trauma-informed response practices and came across the concept of soft interview rooms.

Most police departments don’t have the extra funds to implement their own soft interview rooms, and Matheson saw a void she and Project Beloved could fill, she said.

“We’re at a place where so few people actually report if they’ve been assaulted. And then the statistics of what happens at that point — the number of cases that go to a prosecutor and then the number that have a trial and get a conviction — are so low and disappointing. It’s super important that we try to do whatever we can to move things in a different direction,” Matheson said.

ULPD is the second department and the first university police force the nonprofit has outfitted with a soft interview room. Molly Jane, 22, was studying to become a social worker when she was killed. Building a soft interview room that will serve students like her daughter is “very much what Molly would have wanted,” she said.

Matheson was on site July 16 to install furniture and decorate ULPD’s interview space and said the experience was overwhelming and beautiful.

“Two of the greatest days of the year so far have been the days of unpacking boxes and hanging pictures (at the stations). It’s been really awesome to know the agencies we’re doing it for are genuinely grateful and imagining how the improved environment is going to serve survivors as they come forward to tell their stories,” she said.

One important feature of the Project Beloved interview rooms is the art on the walls. Several days after Molly Jane’s death, another woman, 36-year-old Megan Getrum, was abducted from Plano, Texas, raped and killed. Police have arrested the same man, Reginald Kimbro, in both cases.

The canvas-printed photographs are works of Getrum’s, who loved photography and traveling, and each bears the signature monogram she signed her artwork with. Matheson said the art is the perfect way to pay “tribute to who she was and what mattered to her” and to ensure her memory lives on with Molly Jane’s.

Project Beloved is currently in talks with three to four more departments to install soft interview rooms at their stations, Matheson said.

While the completed space may seem like just a pretty room, the impact goes far beyond that, Zachary said. The overall goal is to change the community’s conversation around sexual assault and domestic violence while also equipping local law enforcement with the most up to date tools to serve survivors, he said.

The room will be available to all area law enforcement agencies, because fighting domestic violence and sexual assault doesn’t end at UL’s campus boundary, Zachary said.

The lieutenant said he hopes that just by having the room, survivors will recognize law enforcement is making a statement that officers value survivors’ courage and are ready and willing to listen when they step forward. He hopes that knowing the room exists may be a catalyst for survivors to step forward, whether after a recent trauma or one they’ve withheld for years.

“Someone might say, ‘I’ve been holding this in all these years. I’m going to come forward now because I think it’s time. I think ULPD, I think Lafayette PD, I think these other agencies are ready to hear my story and I’m ready to tell it,’ ” Zachary said.

“Who knows just because this room exists here whose life it could change, whose life it might save?” he said.

Email Katie Gagliano at kgagliano@theadvocate.com