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Halifax police have signed on to a slow-growing movement of municipal forces adopting a “start by believing” approach to sexual-assault complaints in the hope of hastening a culture change among officers and encouraging victims to come forward.

Francis Vachon/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Halifax police have signed on to a slow-growing movement of municipal forces adopting a "start by believing" approach to sexual-assault complaints in the hope of hastening a culture change among officers and encouraging victims to come forward.

Halifax Regional Police Chief Jean-Michel Blais sent out a message Wednesday saying "If someone reports a sexual assault to me I start by believing. #startbybelieving" on his Twitter account to mark sexual-assault awareness month.

Police Superintendent Jim Perrin, who leads the criminal-investigation division for the city, said it is part of an overall shift toward taking into account the trauma victims have endured when they report sexual violence. The veteran officer said trauma can lead complainants to seem indifferent to their experience, reluctant to participate in the investigation or to have an uneven recollection of events, which leads officers to treat them with more skepticism than warranted. Sexual-assault investigators and first responders from the city police service and local RCMP are taking training for "a more trauma-informed approach," he said.

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Read more: Will police believe you? Find your region's unfounded sex assault rate

Read more: What it's like to report a sexual assault: 36 people share their stories

Read more: Police dismiss 1 in 5 sexual assault claims as baseless, Globe investigation reveals

Police forces in Denver and Ames, Iowa, as well as several states have adopted the start-by-believing stand since the awareness campaign was launched in 2012, but acceptance isn't universal. Some law-enforcement advocates and state officials in the United States have raised objections, saying an uncritical law-enforcement approach to complainants could skew investigations against defendants.

Supt. Perrin said it's more about returning investigations to an objective stand. "Let's face it, sexual assault is a unique crime. There are biases that can creep in with sexual-assault complainants around sex-trade workers, around domestic violence," he said.

"Our approach is to be objective. We're police, we're evidence gatherers and we will let the evidence take us where the cases need to go. But in the early stages where we walk in the door, victims should be comfortable they'll be talking to someone who believes them."

Halifax is among dozens of police forces reviewing sexual-assault complaints that police officers set aside as unfounded after a Globe and Mail investigation that found about one in five cases in Canada are not believed and dropped at that early stage without further investigation. Rates varied widely across the country and Halifax came out below the national average at 13 per cent. Supt. Perrin said his force's review is continuing.

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Experts who examined the Globe data said it pointed to deep flaws in police training, outdated interview techniques and the persistence of rape myths among law-enforcement officials. The police forces with the best practices have unfounded rates in the low-single digits.

Halifax police have made progress in how they treat sexual-assault victims but work remains to be done, according to Jackie Stevens, executive director of the Avalon Sexual Assault Centre.

"People have different experiences. We still continue to hear not everybody has positive experiences when they report to police but they've been taking measures to address it," such as trauma-informed police training, Ms. Stevens said.

She said steps such as adopting the "believe" campaign send an important message. "It's a way of demonstrating they take these issues seriously and they're trying to improve their way of responding to victims and survivors," she said. "But systemic change involves a society and individuals and it doesn't happen overnight."

The findings of a 20-month long investigation expose deep flaws in the way Canadian police forces handle sexual assault allegations. The Globe's Robyn Doolittle explains.
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