November 25 2023

Automatic victim belief: Good evidence, wrong framework, bad policy

Automatic victim belief: Good evidence, wrong framework, bad policy

Pic by Matt Preston (Flickr, creative comms)

Automatic victim belief: Good evidence, wrong framework, bad policy


Photograph: Matt Preston (Flickr)

Operation Midland, the Metropolitan Police investigation into allegations made by ‘Nick’, a man who claimed that he was abused, and that others were murdered, by a Westminster paedophile ring in the 1970s and 80s, has damaged public confidence in the police, the cause of those abused in childhood and the lives and reputations of several elderly men of the establishment.

As brought to light by a senior detective’s televised statement that he thought Nick’s claims were ‘credible and true’, the Met’s problems here stem largely from a basic contradiction in the principles underpinning current investigative practice. On the one hand, as an antidote to the insidious problem of officers groundlessly dismissing abuse claims, they have adopted a policy of automatic victim belief. This has been cemented in Approved Professional Practice and enshrined in crime recording standards. At the same time however, as a vital cog in an even-handed criminal justice system that starts from a presumption of innocence, the police must be open-minded and impartial in their collection and assessment of evidence.

As I first argued in October 2015 these two belief positions are logically incompatible, risk creating ‘cognitive dissonance’ for investigators and unhelpfully focus attention on officers’ mental states, instead of their actions and behaviour. I also argued that the strategy deployed most often in defence of the mismatch – to insist that the conflicting positions could be isolated within separate, sequential police processes (believe when recording a crime, then investigate impartially) – is artificially simple and organisationally disingenuous. Saying we believe you today but we might not tomorrow is barely better than saying we don’t believe you, and calls into question whether we actually believe you today.

Despite suspicions over its timing and partial publication, the Henriques report into Midland and similar investigations ordered by out-going MPS Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe, represents a significant step toward making good the dangerous conceptual weakness introduced by automatic victim belief.

Echoing Dame Elish Angiolini’s earlier review of rape investigations in London, Henriques concludes that the policy ‘perverts our system of justice and attempts to impose upon a thinking investigator an artificial and false state of mind’. While emphasising that the public should be assured their claims will be taken ‘very seriously’ and that officers should not ‘show any form of disbelief’ he recommends that ‘the instruction to ‘believe a “victim’s” account’ should cease’.

This also reflects the position Hogan-Howe himself had reached by February 2016, despite the initial MPS defence of the policy (and too late for the likes of Bramall, Brittan and Proctor). Others in policing have been more recalcitrant however. Chief Constable Simon Bailey, National Police Chiefs’ Council Lead for Child Abuse Investigation, clearly made a concerted defence of automatic belief but failed to convince Henriques, and the College of Policing (the evidence-based professional body for the police) has affirmed its commitment to the policy, both in March 2016 and again last week in response to the report.

The latter communication cites inarguably strong evidence from six research studies, that those who have suffered abuse are discouraged, and often dissuaded from coming forward because they fear that the police will not believe them. This fear seems well-grounded given that time and again, the police have been shown to have ignored, disbelieved, under-recorded and neglected their duty to those who report rape and sexual abuse.

This is a travesty and needs to be urgently and decisively addressed. I want to argue, however, that having assiduously assembled the evidence-base the College has reached the wrong policy conclusion because of a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of belief.

The policy rests on a mistaken assumption that belief is binary. It assumes that believing a proposition or disbelieving it are the only available options and that therefore, to eradicate pernicious disbelief, it is necessary to mandate belief. This is not the case.

Knowledge and ignorance are binary opposites; if you do not know something, you are ignorant of it. Love and hate are not binary; if you do not love someone it does not follow that you hate them. Belief/disbelief works like love/hate not knowledge/ignorance; there are alternative states between and apart from belief and disbelief that one can adopt, and it is from this ground that police officers should, and (regardless of the official mandate) most often do, operate.

So when research tells us that survivors of abuse fear they will be not be believed, what they mean (I contend) is that they fear they will be disbelieved (as has too often been the case). They do not mean that they fear officers will take a position in this ‘third space’ that is neither disbelief nor belief; particularly if that is also (to quote Angiolini) ‘respectful, empathetic, non-cynical, impartial, open-minded, and professional’. None of these characteristics requires belief – and in fact a belief position may compromise at least the final three. It is these behavioural factors, how an officers acts rather than what goes on in their head, that is important and needs be emphasised in policy, guidance and training.

If, as I have suggested, the College is advocating bad policy, based on good evidence, interpreted within the wrong conceptual framework, it is worth briefly considering why this has happened. I’ve suggested elsewhere that at the root of this issue may be a common presumption among policy makers that police officers are not equipped to deal with the complexity and nuance at the heart of their job and therefore need things reduced to simple oppositions (victim or offender, legal or illegal, believe or disbelieve etc.). In an increasingly ambiguous world, such binary simplification is just inadequate.

If police-work has a unique essence it is about making sure that when bad things happen, the right things happen next. Particularly where the starting point is personal testimony, working out what those things should be and how to bring them about can be intricate and difficult work that requires skill, judgement and a finely honed critical, practical, ethical and emotional intelligence. When executed well this can be among the most important jobs in society. Although the police have too often fallen short, bypassing large parts of the critical circuitry at the core of this function with a clumsy imperative to believe not only jeopardises fair treatment for those accused, it fails to understand victims’ concerns and de-skills, de-professionalises and devalues the role of the police.