Why Believe?

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Credit: Tim Meacham

Have you ever witnessed something so fantastic that you could not accurately describe it to friends or family? Have you thought, “They would not believe this?” Yet, you tell your story anyway. You tell it with vim and vigor, hoping that people believe the unbelievable. Some will believe you and speak to how incredible your story is. Some will not believe, but simply tell you that there has to be some underlying explanation that has not revealed itself. You feel validated by those that believe; and, for those that do not, you still feel accepted and certainly not denigrated. Yet, you desire for all to believe.

I have worked in public safety for almost 30 years. I have heard a lot of amazing stories, and experienced many, many more; some of these stories humorous beyond belief, and some of them tragic beyond comprehension. I know that were I to reduce what I have witnessed and heard to writing, there would be those that do not believe. I accept that. No one wants to believe some of the choices people feel forced to make just to survive. No one wants to believe some of the desperate acts I have witnessed.

As a younger patrol officer, I knew my functions were: 1) answer calls for service (reactive policing); 2) provide high visibility patrol and handle problems as I find them (proactive policing); and, 3) get to know the people living in my patrol area (community policing). In reality, I spent most of my time answering calls for service. That is the nature of the beast for law enforcement. You are supposed to handle a call to some resolution, quickly document your actions and head out to the next call for service. Resolutions were difficult to manage at times. Sometimes I could refer to another agency like Social Services, a counseling center, a church, or another government or non-profit organization. Sometimes I could refer the matter to my department’s Investigative Unit. Whatever the situation, though, I had to handle it and move on.
Even in the small agencies (where there are about 20 officers in the entire department), calls for service can stack up. There were times when I could spend some time working with community members who needed some extra help in navigating the problem, but I was always supposed to “stay in my lane”, which was patrol. Patrol, for almost every police department, is the primary function. When it came to community members reporting serious crimes, I was required to determine if I had enough information to call out one of our detectives. To do this, I quickly asked the: who, what, when, where, how, and why questions. Usually, most patrol officers can go through this information in about ten minutes or less. The thinking behind this efficiency is: 1) I have other calls for service to answer; and, 2) if this crime just happened, we are losing precious time locating the offender by standing around and talking about it.

Crimes that the above mentioned form of questioning fails are crimes of intimate partner violence. Intimate Partner Violence (or IPV) crimes include domestic violence, dating violence, stalking and sexual assault. With these crimes, it is not always as easy as who, what, when, where, how, and why. I have learned through many years and many, many calls for service that survivors of IPV experience a lot of abuse that someone would not be expected to tolerate. The reasons for this tolerance are as varied as the number of survivors. This is not assigning blame to survivors. I mention only to explain that everyone’s experience of abuse is different and people can exist with abuse in their lives for many reasons.

Survivors of IPV have some of the most extraordinary stories to tell. These stories can and will exceed a belief threshold. IPV survivors know their stories are extraordinary. Because a victim of IPV has experienced the extraordinary, the question format of who, what, when, where, how, and why cannot scratch the surface of what happened to them. Because IPV survivors have suffered trauma, they, most likely, cannot tell you everything about who, what, when, where, how, and why; although they want to. When IPV survivors tell this extraordinary story of what happened to them, they want to be believed.

When IPV survivors tell their story, they hear, “Why did you go back to him/her?”; or, “Why did you let it go on this long”; or, “Why did you drink (or get drunk) with him/her?”; or, “Why did you wear those clothes?”; or, “Why didn’t you ______ (call for help, scream, fight back, say, “no”)?” These are the questions they hear from friends and family. The IPV survivor blames themselves more than they blame the offender. The saddest encounter for the IPV survivor, though, is when the police ask those same “why” questions. The people sworn to protect and serve instead blame and denigrate.

I have had uncountable number of people tell me that someone stole something from them. I have had innumerable people tell me that someone broke something that belonged to them. I have had numerous people tell me someone broke into their house. I have had copious amounts of people that someone hit them. I do not ever recall asking those victims if their behavior led to the criminal behavior of their offender. Instead, I have accepted what they said, recorded what they said and applied my authority as appropriately as possible in their situation.
Survivors of intimate partner violence deserve the same respect as other victims of crime. They deserve more compassion and less hurried response. Most of all, survivors of intimate partner violence deserve to be believed. A simple gesture such as talking to them in a place that is safe is a great start. Telling this person that they do not have to convince you that they are telling the truth lets them know, from the start, they will be believed. Instead of asking the: who, what, where, when, how, and why, simply ask them to describe their experience and thank them for trusting you. This response can lead to them feeling validated in telling their story. It is that simple.

Have you ever wanted to be believed when you had an extraordinary story to tell? I have. This is why I Believe.

Tim Meacham is a detective for a Central Virginia university. He is currently assigned to investigate criminal complaints of sexual assault, dating violence and stalking. He has over twenty years of experience in Law Enforcement, beginning his career in 1990. Tim teaches sexual assault investigations for a local prosecutor’s office and the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services.

Tim earned his Bachelor of Science degree in 2009 from Liberty University in Criminal Justice, and earned his Master of Science in Criminal Justice from the University of Cincinnati, in 2011. Tim has worked for a private police department, a municipal police department and campus police department. His training background is in investigations, crime analysis, and accreditation.

Start By Believing is a campaign of End Violence Against Women International

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