Believe Victims Or Evidence: When You Can’t Do Both

It’s surprising, and unsurprising, that the Arizona lege signed on to an advocacy position in law enforcement. As a political move, there’s nothing wrong with picking a team, as that’s how politicians get elected. But as a law-making body, the choice was odd.

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 theStart by Believing website, more than 130 communities in the United States and internationally have adopted the program.

What’s the “Start by Believing” program? It’s hard to nail down, as it’s comprised of many words that don’t actually say much.  The upshot of the message, as described, is to treat women alleging that they’ve been sexually assaulted “with compassion and respect and communicate a message of belief and understanding.” All kind words, so what could be wrong?

The characterization of the message says two distinct things:

  1. Treat alleged victims with compassion and respect
  2. Communicate a message of belief and understanding

The first is something that should be the rule with all victims, and, indeed, all people. The operative presumption of law enforcement should be that they should behave well toward everyone, even if this group cares only about themselves. The police should be respectful to all people, including women and putative victims.

But should police “communicate a message of belief and understanding”? The group’s position uses the dreaded argument by analogy:

There is no shame when your loved one dies. When your car is stolen. When you’re diagnosed with cancer. Friends and loved ones gather around you for support. They don’t blame you for “bringing it on yourself.”

It should be the same with sexual violence. But all too often, survivors who have the courage to tell someone what happened are blamed for bringing it on themselves. This needs to change.

The surface appeal is obvious, but the analogies can’t withstand scrutiny. When there is an objective basis for a claim, the fact isn’t in dispute. But when someone alleges their car was stolen, police should still parse the facts to consider whether it was, in fact, stolen, or whether the person is committing insurance fraud. The facts speak for themselves and guide whether the alleged victim is to be believed or cuffed.

The difference here is that sexual assault has shifted from an objective offense to a definitionless feeling. There is a huge distinction between someone found beaten and naked in an alley and someone who had a couple of beers, engaged in what appeared to be enthusiastically consensual sex, and, after a long chat with a gender studies professor, decides that she was raped because she couldn’t give consent even though she consented.

Arizona Youth, Faith and Family director, Debbie Moak, sent out guidance to prosecutors and law enforcement informing them that by adopting the “Start By Believing” position, they put their credibility at risk.

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. In cases that proceed to trial, defense counsel likely could impugn investigators and claim that alternative versions of the crime were ignored and/or errors were made during the investigation as a result of confirmation bias created by the “belief” element of the Start By Believing campaign.

Additionally, many detectives have not been adequately trained to effectively defend the Start By Believing campaign on the witness stand. During a recent case in Iowa, a detective 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”.

The Executive Director of End Violence Against Women disputes Moak’s view:

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….

Her point, that Moak’s lone anecdote doesn’t prove a courtroom crisis, is well taken. Then again, live by the anecdote, die by the anecdote. Whether Moak’s anecdote was offered as proof or an example isn’t entirely clear, though it would appear to be the former.

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.

Archambault’s argument goes off the rails here. The flaw isn’t with her message, but that cops aren’t adequately trained to lie about it and conceal their bias? That’s the problem with belief; it so skews one’s perception that the righteousness of the cause obscures the wrongfulness of the means to achieve it.

That, too, is what presents the core problem with police being told, or taught, to believe the victim no matter what. The “compassion and respect” prong of the message is not just fine, but one that needs to be spread to everyone who police come in contact with. It’s unfortunate that tribal groups like this care only about their own parochial interests, and are more than happy to deny everyone else what they demand for themselves.

But what’s wrong with the “believe despite the facts” position isn’t dependent on whether cops can successfully lie their way through cross-examination, but whether belief has any role in law enforcement at all. Cops have no business believing or disbelieving. Crimes aren’t a matter of what one believes, but what the facts reveal.

We’ve reached a very weird place in law, a post-factual society, when a government official needs to guide police to rely on facts rather than beliefs in the performance of their duty. Weirder still that advocacy groups are taken seriously when they demand that facts be ignored in favor of their beliefs. But then, conviction of innocents isn’t their concern, anymore than police treating all people with respect. Confirmation bias is still bias, no matter how much you want to believe.

H/T The College Fix

6 thoughts on “Believe Victims Or Evidence: When You Can’t Do Both

  1. Lawrence Kaplan

    Note that Archambault quotes “no less an authority than Attorney General Loretta Lynch.” Well, I guess that settles it then.

  2. B. McLeod

    Really nothing new. It’s what has been going on all along with the attachment of “victim” and/or “survivor” status to every accuser, the moment the accusation is spoken. In the media and in the criminal justice system, the process begins with the assumption that the alleged assault occurred. Once the case gets to court, with a “victim” and a “defendant,” normal criminal burdens of proof are less-than-subtly altered.

    1. SHG Post author

      There have always been crime “victims,” with the proviso that the police not believe the status until earned, though no one is a victim until a jury/judge finds a crime has been committed. As to “survivor,” it’s a pernicious bastardization that has, as you say, “less-than-subtly” weaseled its way into the lexicon and mindset only as applied to women who allege sexual assault.

      Victim is a bad enough claim. But unless someone has experienced something likely to take their life, they do not get to call themselves a survivor.

  3. Lex

    “When your car is stolen….”
    [Woman] “Officer, I got drunk and gave my car to someone I hardly know who also was drunk. I now regret that decision. Please arrest him.”
    [Officer] “I am not sympathetic.”

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