When Brie Sivy reported her sexual assault to the Ohio University Police Department, she had several fears.
She worried because she was underage that night and had drank alcohol. She had also never interacted with police officers before, and the investigation meant entrusting them with private details of her life. She worried they wouldn’t believe her.
Sivy, an OU sophomore studying social work, helped plan a Start By Believing event Tuesday alongside the Ambassadors for the Survivor Advocacy Program, the Survivor Advocacy Program and OUPD. Start By Believing is a campaign that aims to prepare people when survivors report sexual assault. The Survivor Advocacy Program and OUPD are .
Survivor Advocacy Program Director Kim Castor led a discussion between OUPD Detective Mathew Austin and OU sophomore and sexual assault survivor Brie Sivy. Austin investigated Sivy’s sexual assault case. There was standing room only at the event in Baker Ballroom A.
Sivy said she wanted to share her experience with OUPD and inspire more people to report sexual assault.
“Having a negative association with OUPD on this campus really prevents a lot of people from wanting to report,” Sivy said. “I had a really positive experience and I know my experience probably isn’t the norm, but I want it to be. I want more people to report and feel like they have a safe space in OUPD to be able to find justice for themselves, even if that justice is just reporting.”
Sivy was sexually assaulted in 2016. A man she “thought was (her) friend” walked her home after a night of drinking. She fell asleep and woke up to him still in her dorm room, and he sexually assaulted her.
She had several fears when she reported the sexual assault to OUPD.
Organizers played audio recordings of interviews Austin conducted with Sivy during the investigation. In one, Austin told Sivy she shouldn’t feel guilty for not fighting off her attacker or struggling to remember parts of the assault. She said his saying that really helped her begin to recover from the trauma.
“It really helped relieve a lot of self-imposed guilt that wasn’t supposed to be there about why I didn’t fight back,” Sivy said. “That was so important to my recovery: knowing that it didn’t matter that I didn’t do what everyone expects a survivor to do, which is to scream out and fight back.”
Austin said he always has to find a way to ask sexual assault survivors why they didn’t fight or scream. He doesn’t like asking that question, but a jury will want to know and his report has to answer it. There are ways he can ask without sounding as if he’s accusing the survivor, though — he can ask survivors, “Can you tell me about the thoughts you were having when he climbed on top of you?” and other questions that tend to prompt explanation without leading the survivors to blame themselves.
He also said during investigations, OUPD tries to give survivors as much control over the process as possible. After a meeting with Sivy and her parents, he spoke privately to her to tell her that she was “in the driver’s seat.”
Sivy’s assailant was convicted and sentenced to a year in prison. Austin said that isn’t the norm. Most sexual assault cases never make it to trial.
“The applause for him getting prison time makes me so happy, but also it adds a heaviness to my heart because I’m probably not going to get that for the next couple survivors I work with,” Austin said. “And I want people to be okay with that. I have to be okay with that.”
The low conviction rape for sexual assault makes those cases especially discouraging for detectives to work, he said. Sexual assault cases also tend to be emotionally draining and can cause secondary traumatic stress.
Austin said that instead of measuring success in working with sexual assault survivors by conviction rate, law enforcement should focus on empowering survivors and making sure they are comfortable during the process.
After Austin and Sivy spoke, OUPD Captain George Harlow pledged that OUPD would “start by believing” survivors, fully investigate sexual assaults and give survivors as much control as possible during investigations.
“We will leave no stone unturned to arrest and prosecute offenders and hold them accountable for all their actions,” he said. “We also commit to doing this in a way that will not further traumatize survivors.”
Attendees signed a large banner to pledge to “Start by Believing.” The OUPD officers who attended signed the banner first.