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Arizona Governor’s Office Questions Whether Investigators Should “Start By Believing”

Do law enforcement authorities compromise the impartiality of sexual assault investigations if they begin those investigations by automatically “believing” the report?

As recently reported by the Phoenix New Times and The Washington Post’s Volokh Conspiracy, that was the goal of the Arizona Governor’s Commission to Prevent Violence Against Women when they adopted a campaign called “Start By Believing” in November of 2014. The campaign is aimed at fostering an atmosphere that encourages victims of sexual assaults to report the crimes. But in an important development, last month, Debbie Moak, Director of the Arizona Governor’s Office of Youth, Faith and Family, wrote a letter urging law enforcement agencies to reconsider the appropriateness of applying that approach in the law enforcement context where investigations are supposed to be unbiased. The letter is embedded in the Phoenix New Times article and can be read in full here.

A key theory behind “Start by Believing,” a national initiative by the group End Violence Against Women International, is that victims who are met with skepticism when they first tell a trusted friend or family member or when they first report the alleged incident to law enforcement authorities are deterred from pursuing their cases as a result.

FIRE shares the campaign’s view that when a complainant first comes forward, it is important for friends and family to be supportive. We also agree that law enforcement officials who receive initial complaints should always treat complainants with dignity, respect, and open minds. But because not all complaints are true, the problems created when investigators are told they need to believe complainants are considerable. Director Moak’s letter explains the problem precisely:

Recently, several serious concerns have surfaced regarding the Start By Believing campaign and whether it is appropriate for criminal justice agencies and others involved in the criminal justice process to participate. The concern is that the interjection of “belief” into the law enforcement investigation creates the possibility of real or perceived confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one's preexisting beliefs or hypotheses, while giving disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities.

Investigations—whether they are conducted in the law enforcement context or in the educational setting—must be conducted objectively. Intake specialists in both contexts could do a great deal to help complainants come forward by withholding skepticism during the initial intake process, but claims must be evaluated objectively if investigations are to lead to accurate conclusions. Impartiality in investigations is not just sound, fair policy, but also required under the 2013 Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. Before a complaint is decided in court or on campus, it must be reviewed under appropriate scrutiny.

It is encouraging to see the Arizona Governor’s office recognize that there are limits to the appropriateness of telling those involved in investigating sexual assaults to “believe” complainants automatically. Campus investigators would be wise to take heed of it as well.

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