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Why Denver Police 'Start by Believing' alleged sex assault victims

Denver Police is one of many agencies participating in a campaign called Start By Believing. He sat with DPD Division Chief Joe Montoya to discuss how his investigators balance believing victims with preserving the presumption of innocence for the accused.

DENVER — While Thursday’s Senate hearing addressing complaints made against Judge Brett Kavanaugh was not part of a criminal investigation, it does bring up the topic of reporting sexual assault.

The Denver Police Department is one of several law enforcement agencies that endorse the Start by Believing campaign, which endeavors to make victims of sexual assault feel comfortable enough to tell authorities.

According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, two of three sexual assaults go unreported.

End Violence Against Women International created the global effort that Denver adopted in 2015. Organizers want the community to understand the importance of listening to friends, family members, co-workers and neighbors who confide in them. They say an understanding support system helps victims find courage to go to the police.

“If a victim truly is afraid to come forward because they feel they’re going to meet barriers within their own support base, their friends, they’re not going to report, and they’re going to carry it with them their entire lives,” said DPD Division Chief Joe Montoya.

Start by Believing’s website states they want to “’flip the script’ on the message victims have historically received from professionals and support people.’” Rather than question if an assault happened, people are asked to offer help and remind victims that a crime is not their fault.

The same guidelines are in place for law enforcement agencies that embrace Start by Believing. While investigators don’t need to say the words “I believe you,” they can give alleged victims a safe space to tell their stories.

“It means that we give credibility to what the victim is telling us at that time because we want them to feel freedom to give us the story. The more facts we have, the better investigation we can do,” Montoya told Next anchor Kyle Clark. “If they’re hesitant to tell us everything, if they’re holding things back out of fear or doubt, that doesn’t help with the investigation.”

Montoya says Start by Believing doesn’t mean the police assume guilt for the accused. Officers will use what they’re told to open a formal investigation, and then use evidence and related information to move forward.

“By the time we get to the accused, we usually have a body of information to work on,” Montoya said.

In his experience, false reports of sexual assault are infrequent, and he feels the department can easily decipher those from substantiated claims. Data from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center shows 2 to 10 percent reports of sexual assault are false, and the statistics are frequently inflated.

Denver’s district attorney’s office has a dual review process to ensure two sets of eyes see every sexual assault report before saying that it shouldn’t go to court. Even if prosecutors dismiss a case, victim resources are still available to the reporter.

The RAINN website said Thursday evening that their online chat system had an unprecedented amount of traffic following the hearing for Supreme Court nominee Kavanaugh and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford.

Montoya says regardless of anyone’s feelings on that case, he hopes it encourages discussion and more reports.

“What I really hope to see come from it is that these victims feel comfortable to come forward in whatever format,” he said, meaning that even if a victim chooses not to go to police, that maybe they’ll make a report online or go to a hospital for an exam.

(Full disclosure: Kyle participated in a PSA project for Start by Believing three years ago.)

If you or anyone you know has been sexually assaulted, there are many resources available:

WATCH | Next's full interview with Montoya

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