Can I say, “I Believe You?”

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Utah’s first official Start by Believing Day is April 6th, just a couple of weeks away. Talk to a Survivor, will dedicate space here to helping our community Start by Believing.

How can I say that “I believe” victims? … don’t I need to remain objective?

The first time people hear the Start by Believing message, they may wonder if this compromises the perspective of objectivity required to be a credible professional. This may be particularly concerning for those who work in the criminal justice system, such as police and prosecutors, who may say: “Whatever happened to ‘innocent until proven guilty?’” Or: “It’s not our job to believe victims. It’s our job to find out the facts and determine what really happened.”

These questions are important, and we have three primary responses. First, the campaign simply asks criminal justice professionals and others to start by believing. After a thorough investigation has been completed, an appropriate case determination can be made. This is fundamentally the same as any other crime report. “Innocent until proven guilty” is a critical foundation of our legal system, but it is not the starting point for a successful investigation.


Second, when we are talking about sexual assault victims, the only way to “find out the facts and determine what really happened” is to first establish rapport and gather essential information from victims. Once a sexual assault is recorded, then the investigation proceeds with various steps such as interviewing suspects and witnesses, collecting evidence, etc. This is the only way to gather the evidence and information that is needed to support a well-founded decision – either for prosecutors to file charges or for investigators to clear a suspect of a reported crime. A thorough investigation must therefore begin from a position of Start by Believing. When victims are approached from the perspective that they are lying, they will often be unable – or unwilling – to provide the type of information needed for law enforcement to successfully investigate the case.

Third, the intention of the campaign is to start from an orientation of believing, and that does not necessarily mean saying the exact words, “I believe you.” The same purpose can be accomplished with alternative phrases like, “I’m sorry this happened to you.” The important issue is not the exact words that are used, but that the person is treated with compassion and respect, and the report is handled professionally – instead of communicating the message (either explicitly or implicitly) that I don’t believe you. Unfortunately, this is exactly the message that is all too often communicated by friends and family members, as well as responding professionals.

This is a common sense argument, but it is also supported with research. In her 2011 study, Dr. Debra Patterson demonstrated that the way investigators interview victims can have an impact – not only on the way victims feel – but also on the quality of information gained, and even the likelihood of prosecution. Based on in-depth interviews with 20 female sexual assault victims, analysis revealed that cases are more likely to be prosecuted when the investigator took time to build rapport with the victim, making sure she felt safe in the interview and then asking questions at a pace that was comfortable for the victim and responsive to her distress.

Many of the women in the study whose cases were prosecuted described the style of questioning by detectives “as gentle by encouraging them to ‘tell more,’ instead of ‘demanding’ answers” (Patterson, 2011, p. 1358).

Victims also described positive reactions to the feeling that they were believed by the detective interviewing them, either because the detective explicitly said so or because it was clear from the level of investigative effort being expended. As one victim described:

The detectives, they believed me; they never said, I believe you. But just their work ethic and how they handled themselves and how they talked to me and treated me is you can tell. … they just made me feel so good and that I was doing the right thing, and I mean to me there was no doubt that they ever thought for a minute that I was lying, never for a minute (Patterson, 2011, p. 1360).

The results of this approach are now being seen in communities across the country.

Source: Patterson, D (2011). The Impact of Detectives’ Manner of Questioning on Rape Victims’ Disclosure. Violence Against Women, Vol. 17, pp. 1349-1373.