By Ray Stern
A popular, nationwide program that encourages police and others to treat rape victims with more sensitivity is under fire from the Arizona Governor’s Office of Youth, Faith and Family.
In a recent letter to elected prosecutors around the state, Youth, Faith and Family director Debbie Moak admonishes Arizona law-enforcement authorities to rethink their support of Start by Believing, a nonprofit initiative aimed at removing obstacles to the reporting of sexual violence. Statistics show that many women decline to report sexual attacks, sometimes out of fear that investigators won’t believe them.
Launched in 2011, Start by Believing is an offshoot of the Washington-based nonprofit End Violence Against Women International.
When the Arizona Legislature adopted a resolution in 2014 supporting Start by Believing, it became the first lawmaking body in the nation to do so. Three other states have since followed — as have Arizona communities including Fountain Hills, Surprise, Apache Junction, and the Prescott Police Department. Several colleges around the state have signed up. In March, the Arizona State University Police Department renewed its support for the initiative; the year before, it became the first campus-police force in the state to support it. According to the Start by Believing website, more than 130 communities in the United States and internationally have adopted the program.
Over the past few months, however, critics have lobbied against the program, claiming that it can create “confirmation bias” — a concept in which investigators go into a case with a pre-existing belief, resulting in an ensuing investigation that’s likely to confirm that belief — and that a suspect’s defense lawyer could undermine a prosecution by injecting the possibility that confirmation bias was at work.
Moak formed a workgroup to examine the program, then wrote a three-page guidance letter dated November 16 that “strongly” urges law-enforcement agencies not to participate in the program. The letter was sent to all county attorneys in the state, as well as to the Governor’s Commission to Prevent Violence Against Women, which helped to form the workgroup.
“The concern is that the interjection of ‘belief’ into the law enforcement investigation creates the possibility of real or perceived confirmation bias,” Moak writes. “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.”
Law-enforcement officials wishing to adopt the program should consult with their local elected county attorney, Moak writes. In the event the county attorney “has even the slightest concern” with the program, then police and other agencies shouldn’t participate.
In the letter, Moak promises that her own office will create an “Arizona-specific sexual violence awareness campaign. The Arizona campaign will convey to sexual assault victims, and the general public, that law enforcement will be respectful, listen, and conduct a comprehensive and un-biased investigation of allegations of sexual assault.”
Joanne Archambault, a retired San Diego police officer and sex-crimes investigator who founded End Violence Against Women International in 2003, says she’s disappointed by Moak’s letter and believes the upswell of opposition to the program in Arizona is “ill-informed.”
Archambault points out that Moak offers only a single, anecdotal example of a problem with Start by Believing: an unnamed detective in Iowa who, Moak writes, “testified that the campaign required him to believe the victim, ‘no matter what.’ The prosecutor in the case explained, ‘…the [Start By Believing] verbiage is what’s killing everybody in court.'”
If there truly is a problem, Archambault argues, Moak should be able to document instances in Arizona, the state that was the first to support Start by Believing. What’s more, the issue in Iowa appears to indicate a flaw in law-enforcement training, not the program itself.
End Violence Against Women International published a response to critics in September, pointing out that Start by Believing’s thrust — don’t assume a victim is lying — is “hardly new,” and that when it comes to crimes against women, no less an authority than U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch noted in a 2015 statement that gender bias “may include police officers misclassifying or underreporting sexual assault or domestic violence cases, or inappropriately concluding that sexual assault cases are unfounded.”
Archambault’s vision for Start by Believing dates back to 1985, when she was working child-molestation cases. She came to believe that it’s not good for victims, prosecutors, or society in general when investigators show extreme skepticism, sexism, or other bias when children or adults report sex crimes.
What’s more, Start by Believing doesn’t require police officers to believe an alleged victim, nor to say they do. The program encourages an initial investigation that doesn’t proceed like an interrogation — wherein, for example, detectives immediately zero in on apparent inconsistencies in a victim’s story.
“You don’t want to shut victims down by interrogating them,” Archambault says, noting that a traumatized victim might not be thinking clearly immediately after an assault. Once officers take a victim’s initial statement, they ought simply to “do their job” and try to determine the truth of what happened. Start by Believing suggests that victims should be taken to a private setting at a time that’s convenient for them to conduct an extended interview, and that authorities should consider bringing in a rape-victim advocate for such sessions.
“Start by Believing is actually in everybody’s best interest,” she says, in that it allows for a more thorough investigation, which helps victims and defendants alike.
Importantly, the program is not aimed only at law enforcement. Start by Believing encourages family, friends, and the community at large to react differently to an initial claim of sexual assault. No one would tell a parent that a daughter who died in car crash should have taken a bus; by the same token, people shouldn’t ascribe guilt to rape victims by commenting that they shouldn’t have gotten drunk, worn certain clothes, or made other decisions that may have preceded an attack.
In an email response to questions from New Times, Moak explains that her office has two goals: “to ensure fairness in the law enforcement process and dignity for victims of sexual assault.”
Of the workgroup, which in addition to personnel from the governor’s office included law-enforcement personnel, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and victim’s rights advocates, Moak writes:
“Throughout the process we were mindful of research that demonstrates victims of sexual assault who experience a supportive and compassionate response, regardless of the criminal justice system outcome, have lower rates of post-traumatic stress than victims who experience secondary trauma in the form of disbelief and blame. We also took a look at the very important need for a fair and neutral investigative process.
“After reviewing this policy in great detail, the work group concluded that victims must be treated with respect, and dignity and that allegations must be investigated in a fair, balanced, and thorough manner.”
Moak could cite no instances of prosecutions that have been hurt by the program but insists that “thoughtful consideration” was given to other positions.
“We believe our conclusion best serves Arizonans,” she writes.
Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery declined to comment for this story.
Other state officials, though, appear to be wavering in their backing of Start by Believing. Although the Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG) officially proclaimed its support for the program in 2013, “there has always been some discussion as to whether it is the best to adopt,” says Amy Rebenar, the association’s human-services planner.
Since 2013, MAG has made efforts to “preach caution,” Rebenar adds. “The policy could have an unintended result — we saw some indications of confirmation bias: Law enforcement was more sensitive to females making the claim.”
Chris Perry, a program director with the Maryland-based Center for Prosecutor Integrity, which has publicly criticized Start by Believing, says the judicial system needs to be impartial and avoid prejudging anyone — ethics that he believes conflict with Start by Believing. While the program’s name might sound great to victims, it sends a different message to people who may be falsely accused of a crime, Perry points out.
“Does it take a miscarriage of justice to figure out something’s wrong?” Perry asks.
Elizabeth Ortiz, executive director of the Arizona Prosecuting Attorneys’ Advisory Council, says she has seen Moak’s letter and is aware of differences of opinion about Start by Believing on the part of prosecutors around the state. APAAC, which provides training and education to 781 municipal, county, and state prosecutors in Arizona, has no official position on Start by Believing, Ortiz says.
Yet Ortiz, a former longtime prosecutor for the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, doesn’t believe the program changes the mission of prosecutors, “even if they adopt it.”
Prosecutors should respect the rights of both victims and the accused, but they should want victims to feel “comfortable” about divulging what they believe happened, she says.
Ortiz agrees that Start by Believing does not advise that police have a duty to always believe the victim.
The governor’s office may be looking at the program “from a slightly different perspective,” she says.
End Violence Against Women International plans to hold a mock trial at its April conference in Orlando, Florida, which will be overseen by a retired Maricopa County Superior Court judge and feature a police officer responding to challenges pertaining to his participation in Start by Believing.