Halifax police force takes oath to 'start by believing' sexual assault victims

Halifax police have agreed to take the “start by believing” approach to sexual-assault complaints. Photo from The Canadian Press

Halifax Regional Police have become the first Canadian police force to take the pledge to “start by believing” sexual assault victims when investigating complaints of sexual violence.

The police force, in partnership with the Avalon Sexual Assault Centre, announced yesterday that its members were taking a pledge from Start by Believing, which is a public awareness campaign that began in the United States. As its name suggests, it encourages people to approach sexual assault victims from an orientation of belief.

“This is something we’ve had discussions on in the past. We decided that this year was the time to do it,” Halifax Regional Police chief Jean Michel Blais told Yahoo Canada News.

“Sexual assaults are probably the most underreported infractions that we have in Canada, and we want victims to know they can be supported in the process.”

The decision to sign on to the campaign comes at the tail end of work the police force has done to change its approach to sexual assaults, Blais said. The Halifax force has had a dedicated unit for sexual assault investigations since 2003, he said. Over the past several years, the unit has trained investigators and front-line officers in a “victim-centred, trauma-centred” approach to handling sexual assault complainants.

“We have been doing for the last few years an approach that is based on not re-victimizing the victims,” Blais said. “The idea is for [officers] to not cause any more harm than has already been caused and to be able to support them at the outset.”

In recent months — particularly since the release of The Globe and Mail‘s “Unfounded” series — police forces across the country have pledged to change how they deal with sexual assault cases. For instance, RCMP commissioner Bob Paulson announced a review of all recent sex assault cases that were classified as unfounded. Additionally, the Sûreté du Québec is reviewing a large sample of unfounded sexual assault cases, and the Ontario Provincial Police will review about 4,000 sexual assault cases across Canada. Police forces in London (ON), Saanich (B.C.), Truro (N.S.), and Regina (SK) are some of those across the country that have promised to review their treatment of sexual assault cases and their unfounded rates.

Part of a global movement

The Start by Believing campaign first launched in 2011. While it has primarily centred on the United States, where its associated non-profit End Violence Against Women International is based, the movement has a global focus, Alison Jones-Lockwood of EVAWI told Yahoo Canada News.

“To my knowledge, what’s happening in Halifax is the largest campaign thus far outside of the United States,” Jones-Lockwood said. “We’ve had a campaign in Zimbabwe recently, we had a campaign in Italy last year. We really want to take this as far as possible.”

Opponents of the campaign argue that if law enforcement officers aren’t critical of complainants in sexual assault cases, the investigations could become skewed. Both Jones-Lockwood and Blais said that concern is misguided.

“This is really at the outset, at the reception of the initial complaint,” Blais said of the belief-oriented approach. “It really doesn’t change any standards, per se. It just changes the initial approach to the victim. It still doesn’t change the fact that as investigators, police officers, we’re still responsible to validate all the evidence.”

A Start by Believing training bulletin provided by End Violence Against Women International (EVAWI) outlines how initial reactions of doubt or disbelief from friends, family, and law enforcement can have detrimental effects on sexual assault victims. Furthermore, some research has shown that a negative initial reaction may have a worse impact than having no reaction at all.

Ultimately, the Start by Believing approach is one that can be adopted from police forces and other institutions onto individuals, Jones-Lockwood said.

“I truly believe that the message is tangible for law enforcement and communities,” Jones-Lockwood said. “I think they respond to the message because it’s something specific they can do.”