In 2011, End Violence Against Women International (EVAWI) launched its Start by Believing (SBB) campaign, described as a “global campaign transforming the way we respond to sexual assault.” The goal of the SBB campaign is revealed by its name: to convince investigators and others involved in sexual assault cases to “start by believing.” Start by Believing even wants investigators to stop using the word, “alleged:”

While it may be appropriate for mental health professionals to utilize Start by Believing concepts, the job of investigators is to uncover the truth of the allegation in an impartial and honest manner. For these reasons, in 2016 the Arizona Governor’s Commission to Prevent Violence Against Women issued a letter highlighting how Start by Believing “creates the possibility of real or perceived confirmation bias.” The Governor’s Commission concluded:

“While investigations and interviews with victims should always be done in a respectful and trauma-informed manner, law enforcement agencies, and other agencies co-located in advocacy centers, are strongly cautioned against adopting Start By Believing.”

These are some of the controversial documents published by EVAWI:

1. Law Enforcement Action Kit

SBB has developed a Law Enforcement Action Kit for investigators and other law enforcement personnel. The Kit makes bias-promoting statements such as:

  • “I am a criminal investigator…When someone tells me they were raped or sexually assaulted, I Start by Believing” (page 1)
  • “Start by Believing…is the starting point for a fair and thorough investigation.” (page 2)

Start By Believing (SBB) investigators are told to begin the probe with an “initial presumption” of merit.

2. Effective Report Writing: Using the Language of Non-Consensual Sex

EVAWI has published a report for police investigators titled, Effective Report Writing: Using the Language of Non-Consensual Sex. The 2006 version included a number of controversial recommendations such as:

  •  In order to “better support successful prosecution,” police investigators should “try to fill in details that are realistic, based on the kinds of sexual assault cases you have handled and the victims you have interviewed” as doing this will better “articulate the context of force, threat, or fear that the victim experience.”

Detectives, in other words, were advised to state in their official reports that particular incidents of alleged sexual assault included actions which the complainants themselves never claimed happened but which, by being typical of the type of incidents alleged, and can communicate the “feeling” of such incidents.

Updated in 2019, the manual instructs investigators to:

  1. Emphasize witness statements that “corroborate the victim’s account.” (page 6)
  2. Make the complainant “appear more innocent.” (page 14)
  3. Assure the investigative report uses the “language of non-consensual sex” (page 15)
  4. Make sure the incident does “not look like a consensual sexual experience” (pages 16-17)

3. Training Bulletin: Start By Believing

SBB publishes a Training Bulletin: Start by Believing that openly promotes investigator bias, utilizes guilt-presuming terminology, and makes statements that are demonstrably false:

The Training Bulletin repeatedly instructs the investigator to “Start by Believing,” meaning the investigator should “operate from a starting presumption that the report has merit.” The Bulletin explicitly states, “[e]ven a ‘neutral’ stance will be insufficient to establish the trust and rapport victims need to share memories that are confusing, painful, or humiliating.”

In sexual assault cases, the question of innocence or guilt often revolves around determinations of consent, which can only be reached during the adjudication process. But the Training Bulletin never uses the words “complainant” or “accuser” – only “victim.”  Referring to the complainant as a “victim” before the investigation is completed serves to presume the guilt of the accused. In one notable decision, District Court Judge F. Dennis Saylor scolded an investigating party for its careless use of the word “victim:”

“Whether someone is a ‘victim’ is a conclusion to be reached at the end of a fair process, not an assumption to be made at the beginning.”

The Training Bulletin also makes the claim that “confirmation bias has long influenced the response of criminal justice professionals in the opposite direction,” i.e., in such a manner to disbelieve the claimant. This claim is not supported. Many of wrongful convictions of sexual assault and other crimes have been traced to detective bias favoring the complainant. One law review article concluded that police investigators typically “focus on the suspect, select and filter the evidence that will ‘build a case’ for conviction, while ignoring or suppressing evidence that points away from guilt.”

4. Understanding the Neurobiology of Trauma and Implications for Interviewing Victims

Start By Believing endorses the use of “trauma-informed” approaches such as the Forensic Experiential Trauma Interview (FETI). A 2015 analysis by the Air Force Office of Special Investigations reached this conclusion:

“Given the lack of empirical evidence on FETI’s effectiveness, and the large number of investigative, professional and scientific concerns regarding FETI and FETI training, the Air Force does not consider FETI as a viable option for investigative interviewing. We believe it would be inappropriate and irresponsible to discontinue the use of a robust, well-studied, effective, and empirically-validated interviewing method that is supported by the latest scientific research (the Cognitive Interview), in favor of an interviewing method that is loosely constructed, is based on flawed science, makes unfounded claims about its effectiveness, and has never once been tested, studied, researched or validated.”

Federal Support for SBB

Over the years, $9.5 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)

SUCCESS: On July 8, 2021, EVAWI sent out a statement with the benign title, “Registration Fee Now Required for Webinars: All 2021 Virtual Conference Sessions Available.” The statement included the bombshell announcement that the Dept. of Justice has terminated its financial support for Start By Believing programs: