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‘Start By Listening’ or ‘Start By Believing’?

The right to due process is a constitutionally guaranteed right afforded to Americans. Criminal investigations that are impartial, fair, and honest are one of the hallmarks of due process. But so-called “victim-centered” investigations threaten to turn adjudications in the criminal justice system and on campus into a sham, resulting in wrongful convictions and determinations of guilt.

Matt Rolph, pictured at the right, was a former student at Hobart College in New York. He was found innocent by a jury and later exonerated by a federal judge. But that didn’t keep him from being branded a “rapist” and expelled from his school. Sign the petition in support of Matt to stop victim-centered investigations.

Ethical Codes

Ethical codes require investigators to approach their work with impartiality, honesty, and freedom from bias.  For example, the International Association of Chiefs of Police code 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.” And federal Title IX regulations require campus grievance procedures to be “equitable.”

When detectives decide early in the investigation that the lead suspect is guilty, they begin to look for evidence that confirms their initial “hunch,” while blocking out inconsistent information, research shows. This tunnel vision leads to biased investigative reports and wrongful convictions.

In contrast, Start By Believing (SBB) investigators are told to begin the probe with an “initial presumption” of merit. SBB’s Effective Report Writing: Using the Language of Non-Consensual Sex manual goes on advise investigators to:

1. “[M]inimize the risk of contradiction by not writing a detailed report for any victim or witness who has already provided a detailed, written summary of events.” (page 34)

2. Make sure the incident does “not look like a consensual sexual experience” (pages 15-16), and by making the complainant “appear more innocent.” (page 13)

3. Focus on witness statements that serve to “corroborate the victim’s account.” (pages 5 and 7)

To its credit, SBB’s Participation of Criminal Justice Professionals does state:

  • “It is therefore critical to emphasize that our goal with this campaign is not to ‘railroad’ suspects, by encouraging preordained conclusions, or investigations conducted only to confirm an initial hypothesis.” (page 1)
  • “We are against bias of any kind during the criminal justice process, and we believe that the position of Start by Believing is not different in any fundamental way from any other crime.” (page 7)

So why does SBB always refer to complainants with the conclusory word, “victims”? And why not urge investigators to start by “listening” rather than start by “believing”?

Trauma-Informed: Near-Religious Teaching

Start By Believing also promotes the use of “trauma-informed” methods. This, despite the fact that a California Task Force recommended:

“The use of trauma-informed approaches to evaluating evidence can lead adjudicators to overlook significant inconsistencies on the part of complainants in a manner that is incompatible with due process protections for the respondent. Investigators and adjudicators should consider and balance noteworthy inconsistencies (rather than ignoring them altogether)…”

Harvard Law School professor Jeannie Suk has described believe-the-victim approaches such as trauma-informed as a “near-religious teaching” that is likely to harm rape victims. Over 150 professors and legal experts say “trauma-informed” concepts represent a “virtual chicken soup of quasi-diagnoses such as ‘tonic immobility,’ ‘fragmentation of memories,’ and ‘factual inconsistencies.’”

Sex Bias?

Studies have documented widespread criminal justice bias against men, including:

Despite these studies, Start By Believing claims that women are subjected to criminal justice bias.

Federal Support for SBB

Over the years, $8.9 million,  mostly from the Department of Justice, has been awarded to End Violence Against Women International.  According to EVAWI:

“we have used federal funding to support project activities that mention, include, or incorporate the Start by Believing philosophy….EVAWI published a Training Bulletin in August 2017 with the title, Start by Believing to Improve Responses to Sexual Assault and Prevent Gender Bias. It was written primarily for investigating officers who might be challenged on the stand during a sexual assault trial to defend against an allegation of bias resulting from their participation in a Start by Believing campaign or initiative. This Training Bulletin was supported with federal funding, which was awarded to EVAWI for the purpose of improving law enforcement responses to sexual assault and preventing gender bias.” (page 3)

Letters to the Department of Justice

In February, 2018 a 7-page complaint was filed with the Department of Justice for SBB’s alleged neglect of fundamental due process principles and abuse of taxpayer money. The DOJ has yet to provide a substantive response to the complaint.

On April 3, 2019, the Center for Prosecutor Integrity sent a letter to Attorney General William Barr. The letter concluded:

The Start By Believing concepts and methods contradict the mission of the Department of Justice that states in part, “…to ensure fair and impartial administration of justice for all Americans.” Termed a “multi-million dollar threat to justice,” Start By Believing abuses the purpose and intent of Congressional appropriations. This in turn undermines the public trust, which is essential to the effective functioning of our criminal justice system.

The Center for Prosecutor Integrity hereby requests your office to promptly initiate steps to suspend funding for all grants designed to promote Start By Believing, or the use of any “victim-centered” or “trauma-informed” investigative methods.

The six-page letter and Exhibits A to H are available online.

It is appropriate for counselors and mental health professionals to use Start By Believing methodologies. But investigators are not therapists; their job is to uncover the truth of the allegation in an impartial and objective manner. We urge you to contact Attorney General William Barr. Tell him to suspend funding for Start By Believing investigations:



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