U Police joins campaign to prioritize victims of sexual assault

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The U’s police department recently joined a long line of organizations participating in the nationwide “Start by Believing” campaign, which seeks to prioritize victims in sexual assault cases.

As the initiative is more of an awareness effort, officers will partner with the Center for Student Wellness for training on how to handle sexual violence and programming on possible ways to prevent it. U Police will also host events to highlight available resources on campus for students experiencing trauma.

Sgt. Heather Horstmeier, who helped launch the initiative last week, said the program is meant to encourage friends, family and officers who are told about an assault to start by believing the victim instead of questioning his or her story.

“We wanted to … provide the community with understanding [for] victims and how important their response is when somebody reports a sexual assault,” she said.

The initial reaction from those a victim confides in often determines whether the person seeks help or shuts him or herself off after an unwelcome sexual advance. When a loved one responds with doubts, it can deepen a victim’s trauma and provide no consequences for the perpetrator. Katie Stiel, program manager for the Center of Student Wellness, hopes the campaign can teach people to make these interactions more positive.

“The only person who’s at fault for sexual violence is the perpetrator, so Start by Believing is a way to shape that and shift a really big piece of rape culture, which is that no one believes sexual violence happens, even though we have statistics and cases and things that tell us it’s happening,” she said.

Stiel said there’s a societal norm to blame the victims — because they drank too much or dressed a certain way — instead of the perpetrators of violent behavior. But she believes the police initiative can change that if people are open to understanding why this issue needs awareness.

According to an annual report from U Police, there were 26 cases involving forcible sexual offenses on campus in 2013 (the most recent data available). That is double the totals from 2011 and 2012 combined. These numbers are often lower than the reality, however, because many victims do not report an assault out of fear or shame, Stiel said.

The Center for Student Wellness offers a victim advocate program — one of the free services found on campus — where students who have experienced an assault can speak confidentially and find other resources, such as places to get medical attention. Stiel said this is a good place to start in seeking solace and understanding in difficult situations. You can set up at an appointment by calling 801.581.7779. Students can also reach out to the local Rape Recovery Center crisis line at 801.467.7278.

Other groups that have joined the Start by Believing initiative include the West Valley City Police Department in Utah, the University of Southern California and the Arizona Army National Guard.

In their participation in the campaign, U Police officers pledged to “change the world and outcomes for victims one response at a time.”

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@CourtneyLTanner