“Start by Believing” Initiative Creates Controversy
by Matt Clarke
According to a December 15, 2016 news report, Debbie Moak, then-director of the Arizona Governor’s Office of Youth, Faith and Family, issued a letter of guidance recommending that criminal justice agencies not adopt policies supported by Start by Believing.
Start by Believing, a nonprofit victim-centered initiative, works to remove obstacles to the reporting of sexual violence. It is an offshoot of End Violence Against Women International, a Washington State-based organization founded by retired San Diego sex-crimes investigator Joanne Archambault. [See: PLN, Oct. 2017, p.60].
“The concern is that the interjection of ‘belief’ into the law enforcement investigation creates the possibility of real or perceived confirmation bias,” Moak wrote in her three-page guidance letter sent to Arizona prosecutors. “While investigations and interviews with victims should always be done in a respectful and trauma-informed manner, law enforcement agencies, and other agencies co-located in advocacy centers, are strongly cautioned against adopting Start by Believing.”
Archambault countered that Start by Believing is intended to keep victims from being “shut down by interrogation,” and does not require police to believe or say they believe a victim’s allegations. The goal is to prevent investigators from assuming that an alleged victim is lying about being raped or sexually abused.
However, Moak noted that after an unnamed Iowa detective “testified that the campaign required him to believe the victim, ‘no matter what,’” the prosecutor in the case said Start by Believing’s verbiage “is what’s killing everybody in court.” If Start by Believing really does not require law enforcement to believe the allegations of a complainant, then why did it choose the name “Start by Believing?” And if a law enforcement agency adopts a blanket policy of believing a victim’s allegations, then it is no longer a neutral party when investigating crimes.
Moak said her office “has two goals: ‘to ensure fairness in the law enforcement process and dignity for victims of sexual assault.’” To that end, her office is creating an Arizona-specific awareness campaign for sexual violence.
In 2014, Arizona’s legislature became the first lawmaking body to pass a resolution supporting Start by Believing. Since then, three other states (Utah, New Mexico and Oklahoma) and more than 130 communities have adopted similar resolutions. If Start by Believing is used to lessen the tendency of family, friends and members of the public to question the attire, drug or alcohol consumption or other habits of a victim of rape or sexual assault, then the initiative serves a beneficial purpose.
However, one must question whether it is appropriate to adopt a requirement that law enforcement officials “believe” any person reporting any particular crime, rather than accepting allegations with an open mind in order to determine the truth. After all, there have been numerous examples of defendants being falsely accused of sexual abuse by “victims” who fabricated the claims – indicating that not all alleged victims should be believed.
The Arizona Prosecuting Attorneys’ Advisory Council, which provides training for prosecutors in the state, has taken no official position on Start by Believing.
In a related matter, the Rockville, Maryland-based Center for Prosecutor Integrity (CPI), which has criticized Start by Believing, issued a press release in September 2016 urging Human Rights Watch to remove a report, “Improving Police Response to Sexual Assault,” from the organization’s website. CPI said the 2013 report “contained a series of recommendations that would severely distort the investigative process,” including one requiring investigators to assume “all sexual assault cases are valid unless established otherwise by investigative findings.”
CPI noted that the report used the word “victim” 350 times. “Neutral words such as ‘complainant,’ ‘accuser,’ or ‘alleged’ did not appear even once in the 40-page report. This reveals an unmistakable, even intentional bias because it presumes a crime has been committed before the investigation begins.” In one example cited by CPI, the expulsion of a college student in Georgia was announced in a campus-wide email before he was even interviewed about sexual assault allegations.
CPI compared such “victim-centered” investigations, which are based upon the notion of “always believe the victim,” to the Jim Crow era following the Civil War, when blacks accused of criminal offenses “were found guilty upon mere accusation.”
As of December 2017, Human Rights Watch had not removed the report from its website.
Sources: www.phoenixnewtimes.com, www.hrw.org, www.prosecutorintegrity.org, www.startbybelieving.org, letter from Debbie Moak (Nov. 16, 2016)