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Start By Believing Victim-Centered Investigations

‘Start By Believing:’ Good for Counselors and Therapists, Bad for Detectives and Investigators

E. Everett Bartlett April 9, 2019 Start By Believing is an investigative philosophy that has received millions of dollars in funding from the U.S. Department of Justice over the years.[1] Start by Believing describes itself as a “global campaign transforming the way we respond to sexual assault.”[2] Its basic message is simple: Persons who come

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Start By Believing is an investigative philosophy that has received millions of dollars in funding from the U.S. Department of Justice over the years.[1] Start by Believing describes itself as a “global campaign transforming the way we respond to sexual assault.”[2] Its basic message is simple: Persons who come forward to report their assault should be treated with courtesy and their complaint taken seriously. And no one would disagree with that admonition.

But Start By Believing also seeks to fundamentally change the way investigators and detectives conduct their investigations. Ethical codes require investigators to approach their work with impartiality, honesty, and fairness.  For example, the code of the International Association of Chiefs of Police states, “The law enforcement officer shall be concerned equally in the prosecution of the wrong-doer and the defense of the innocent. He shall ascertain what constitutes evidence and shall present such evidence impartially and without malice.”[3] [emphasis added]

This article reviews three Start By Believing documents and highlights selected factual and logical flaws.

1. The foundational report of Start By Believing is titled, “Effective Report Writing: Using the Language of Non-Consensual Sex.” Let’s consider the wording of the title: “Using the language of non-consensual sex.” This phrase sends an unmistakable message that the investigator should slant his or her investigative conclusions in order to conform to that ideological imperative.

Accordingly, investigators are supposed to begin with an “initial presumption” of guilt,[4] a step that research has shown to contribute to tunnel vision, faulty investigative conclusions, and wrongful convictions.[5] Investigators are then expected to focus on witness statements that “corroborate the victim’s account” — this phrase is repeated multiple times throughout the Effective Report Writing document.

If the document’s intent still is not crystal-clear, the manual tells investigators to make sure the incident does not “look like a consensual sexual experience” (pages 15-16) by making the complainant “appear more innocent” (page 13). So if it turns out it was the complainant who initiated the sexual encounter, that inconvenient fact might be omitted from the final report.

2. A second report from Start By Believing is titled “False Reports: Moving Beyond the Issue to Successfully Investigate Non-Stranger Sexual Assault.” Just like the “Effective Report Writing” manual, this document’s title betrays its real purpose, which appears to be to:

  1. Dismiss any real possibility that the allegation may be false, and
  2. “Successfully” prosecute sexual assault — “successfully,” of course, is understood to mean a conviction is reached.

In allegations of non-stranger sexual assault, the central issue, in most cases, is whether the sexual encounter was consensual or not. Amazingly, the issue of how to determine the consent of parties to engage in sex is not addressed. Upon reflection, this is not surprising when we consider the title of the first publication, “Effective Report Writing: Using the Language of Non-Consensual Sex.” If non-consensual sex is a predetermined conclusion, obviously there is no need to address the issue in a publication on “False Reports.”

“Confirmation bias” refers to the tendency of investigators to take mental short-cuts and seek out information that confirms their initial “hunch” that a certain suspect is indeed the culprit.[6] The “False Reports” document does concede that investigator confirmation bias can be a problem. But then the document turns truth on its head, claiming that the “reality” of “confirmation bias” is the implicit bias of criminal justice personnel against victims of sexual assault. This surprising conclusion is not backed up not any government survey or research study published in a peer-reviewed journal. Rather, it comes from an opinion piece written by a police captain from West Hartford, Connecticut and published in the Police Chief Magazine.[7]

3. The report, “Understanding the Neurobiology of Trauma and Implications for Interviewing Victims“ endorses the claim from “trauma-informed” advocates that sexual assault claimants may give inconsistent accounts of the incident because of faulty cognitive encoding caused by the “trauma” of the incident (page 31). [8] But neurobiology experts have disputed that claim. For example, Susan E. Brandon, PhD and Sujeeta Bhatt, PhD have written:

“Current data do not support the notion that trauma memories are different from other autobiographical memories – in fact, research shows that trauma and non-trauma memories do not differ, at least in healthy populations…There is some evidence that fear memories are [actually] richer in sensory details.”[9]

The frosting on the cake? All of the Start By Believing documents refer to “victims,” never “accusers” or “complainants.” George Orwell would be impressed.

It is appropriate for counselors and mental health professionals to use Start By Believing methodologies. But detectives and investigators are not therapists; their job is to uncover the truth of the allegation in an impartial and objective manner.










[9] , Exhibit C