‘Believe the Victim’ Investigations Reveal a Callous Disregard for the Truth

Michael Conzachi

One of citizens’ most important due process right is the right to a fair and unbiased investigation. For a number of years, activists have promoted a concept they refer to as “Believe the Victim,” to be utilized by law enforcement personnel when they respond to charges of sexual assault or domestic violence.

Traditionally, crime investigators have been expected to take an unbiased and neutral approach to the investigation. This means allowing the facts and evidence to speak for themselves to determine what has occurred. In contrast, the “Believe the Victim” philosophy means that investigators focus their efforts on validating the accuser’s version of the events.

Based on training models with titles such as “Start by Believing,” “Trauma-Informed,” and “Victim-Centered,” these methods reinforce, in the consciousness of investigators, the notion that their job is to validate the information supplied to them by an alleged victim of sexual assault. This worrisome movement has reached the point that in many jurisdictions, “Believe the Victim” is now the standard.

These policies handcuff an impartial and unbiased investigative effort. They discourage law enforcement officers from looking for evidence of innocence. And if exculpatory evidence is found, they create a form of “tunnel vision” so detectives tend to gloss over such evidence, or even ignore it altogether.

Advocates of Start by Believing claim that law enforcement officers are generally incompetent, indifferent, and routinely dismiss sexual assault allegations as unfounded. They also maintain that law enforcement officers routinely treat alleged victims with disdain and disrespect.

The truth of the matter is very different. In my 30 years working on the front lines of law enforcement, I have found that criminal investigations typically are conducted by well-trained individuals. Their efforts to seek out the truth are thorough and professional, both initially and in the follow-up stages.

This is not to say that there haven’t been cases in the past where a victim was dismissed by an improperly trained or indifferent law enforcement officer. But those instances are much rarer than Believe the Victim proponents claim.

In the state where I have worked, the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) mandates specific Learning Domains for crimes including sexual assault, domestic violence, and offenses involving children: https://www.post.ca.gov/regular-basic-course-training-specifications.aspx . The Commission also mandates investigator training for specific crimes, including sexual assault, domestic violence, and offenses involving children: https://www.post.ca.gov/specialized-investigators-basic-course-training-specifications.aspx . The underlying theme of the POST training programs is to always conduct investigations with impartiality, based on facts and evidence.

Believe the Victim advocates also accuse law enforcement officials of sex bias against women. In this day and age, the majority of investigators in domestic violence and sexual assault units are female, so the notion of anti-female bias would appear to be unlikely.

And there is no good data indicating a systematic bias against women. If there is any bias, it is against men. According to the CDC’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, male victims of sexual assault, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner report police are less helpful, compared to female victims: https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/cdc_nisvs_ipv_report_2013_v17_single_a.pdf (Table 7.2)

  • Percentage of Male victims who report police were Very or Somewhat helpful: 38.8%
  • Percentage of Female victims who report police were Very or Somewhat helpful: 58.7%

The Believe the Victim philosophy represents an evisceration of the presumption of innocence and a callous indifference to the truth. Conducting criminal investigations in which the investigator is instructed to specifically validate an accused’s version of events does not represent 21st century policing in America.  Such approaches more resemble policing in repressive regimes such as North Korea and the former Soviet Union.

Law enforcement officers and investigators have taken an oath to protect and defend the Constitution and the constitutional rights of all, including those accused of serious crimes. Investigators must seek after the truth rather than compromise their honesty and integrity.