‘Start-By-Believing’ Investigations Are A Multimillion Dollar Threat To Justice

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Christopher Perry Deputy executive director of Stop Abusive and Violent Environments
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Balanced and truthful investigations serve as the linchpin of our criminal justice system. But in the name of “Start by Believing,” that principle has come under assault, threatening the integrity of judicial determinations and making wrongful convictions far more likely.

Since 2008 the U.S. Department of Justice has awarded 19 grants totalling millions of dollars to a group called “End Violence Against Women International” (EVAWI). The stated purpose of the organization is to “educate those who respond to gender-based violence, equipping them with the knowledge and tools they need to support victims.”

While it is vital to support sexual assault complainants, EVAWI’s proposals undermine due process, bias the investigative process, and make it nearly impossible for a falsely accused individual to defend himself from a criminal charge of sexual assault.

In a manual titled “Effective Report Writing: Using the Language of Non-Consensual Sex,” EVAWI instructs law enforcement professionals how to investigate sexual assault cases with the specific goal of a achieving a “successful prosecution.”

But, an investigator’s job is not to determine a suspect’s guilt. Investigators must remain objective to seek the truth, not simply proof of the suspect’s guilt.

The “Effective Report Writing” document contradicts this notion and focuses on methods by which a suspect’s defenses may be undermined. The manual even suggests “making sure” the incident does “not look like a consensual sexual experience,” by making the complainant “appear more innocent.”

Guilt-presuming recommendations

The “Effective Report Writing” report promotes five problematic concepts:

1. The investigator is an agent of the prosecutor, not an independent fact-finder. Encouraging investigators to move beyond the traditional role of neutral fact finder, EVAWI’s manual urged that investigative reports be written to “successfully overcome” sexual assault defense strategies.

2. All allegations are true and a complainant always should be the manual. The word “victim” appears literally hundreds of times in the 34-page manual. In contrast, the words “alleged,” “complainant,” or “accuser” do not appear even once.

3. The investigator should discount the possibility of a false allegation. The manual instructs investigators to focus on getting statements from the suspect that “corroborate the victim’s account or provide an implausible or even absurd version of reality.”

4. Inconsistencies occur rarely, and when they do, they should not be interpreted as evidence of a false claim. The manual advises that investigators should highlight only those facts that “corroborate the victim’s statement.” Nowhere is the investigator advised to explore inconsistencies in the complainant’s statements or evidence, a key strategy used by investigators to validate investigative findings.

5. Exculpatory statements provided by the suspect have little bearing on the findings of the investigative report. The “Effective Report Writing” document suggests “making sure” the incident does “not look like a consensual sexual experience.”

Arizona: “Strongly cautioned against adopting Start By Believing”

In 2011, EVAWI launched a campaign dubbed Start by Believing, ambitiously describing its goal as a “global campaign transforming the way we respond to sexual assault.” The “Start by Believing” campaign admonishes investigators to embrace the role of advocate and support person.

On Oct. 4, 2016, an expert panel consisting of investigators and other experts analyzed investigative methods such as those endorsed by the Start by Believing campaign, and concluded these approaches “violate ethical requirements for impartial and honest investigations, are inconsistent with basic notions of fairness and justice, and give rise to wrongful convictions and determinations of guilt.”

In November 2016, the Arizona Governor’s Commission to Prevent Violence Against Women issued a letter advising Arizona’s criminal justice agencies to reject the investigative methods proposed by “Start by Believing” because their use “creates the possibility of real or perceived confirmation bias.” The Commission’s letter explained the distinction between respecting the victim as a response to reported assault and allowing the presumption of guilt to infiltrate the criminal justice system:

The “Start by Believing” campaign is most appropriate for non-criminal justice agencies and others not involved in the criminal justice system. 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.”

The governor’s office cited a case in Iowa where a detective testified the “Start by Believing” campaign required him to believe the victim, “no matter what.” The prosecutor in the case later explained that the “Start by Believing” verbiage “is what’s killing everybody in court.” Instead, the governor’s commission urged that law enforcement conduct an “un-biased investigation of allegations of sexual assault.”

Despite the potential danger for confirmation bias and wrongful convictions, the slanted Start by Believing ideology is currently being disseminated to law enforcement and other professionals throughout the country.

For more information, see the Center for Prosecutorial Integrity’s report, ‘Believe the Victim’: The Transformation of Justice.

Christopher Perry is the deputy executive director at for Stop Abusive and Violent Environments (SAVE).

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.