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Police Tactics Questioned When Rape Victims Become Suspects

Sexual assault victims whose claims police disregarded and turned into accusations of false reporting have become advocates for better treatment of victims and for better police training, a new Netflix documentary reports. The documentary, "Victim/Suspect," follows an investigation by Rachel de Leon of the Center for Investigative Reporting, whose curiosity about one case follows the thread into hundreds of other cases where reports of sexual assaults turn into criminal charges of making a false report. One expert on the phenomenon interviewed in the documentary, Lisa Avalos, author of the book "When Reporting Rape Becomes A Crime," says that despite media fascination with false reporting, genuine cases of that are in the single-digit percentages of all reported rapes. "The message that they send to all the sexual assault survivors in their community is that if the police don’t believe you they might prosecute you," Avalos said. This discourages reporting of sexual assaults, she believes.

Data documenting the phenomenon are sketchy. But, along with footage of interrogations that turned hostile toward victims, interviews with Avalos and other experts and advocates in the film focus on police procedures that make rape investigations prone to such abuses: relying on recantations to close difficult to investigate rape allegations; coercing vulnerable, often young victims into making false confessions of false reporting by lying about the existence of evidence supposedly exposing inconsistencies in a victim's story; and exploiting weaknesses in victims' stories, shaming them for heavy drinking or consenting to some sexual contact before it went too far. A retired San Diego sex investigator, Carl Hershman, explains how police need better training in trauma-informed interviewing that recognizes memory impairment isn't necessarily a sign of false reporting. The Center found about 200 cases of victims becoming criminal suspects. In 52 cases where the Center obtained records, 32 people who reported a sexual assault eventually recanted and 15 were charged with a crime within 24 hours. In 35 cases, reporting victims' credibility was attacked for "inconsistencies."


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