Challenging the Victims Version of Events

Challenging the Victims Version of Events

When people fill out a complaint form in a police station, they want their versions of what transpired to be accepted. From a detective’s point of view, however, it is a necessary part of the job to maintain


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some healthy skepticism and handle complainants as “presumptive” victims until they pass a credibility test to weed out those whose stories are bogus. Obviously, the police should not automatically treat all complainants as if they are up to no good because of the misdeeds of a few fakers. The fol- lowing examples demonstrate that on rare occasions individuals who tell what appear to be compelling stories may be attempting to manipulate and mis- lead investigators in order to conceal their role in a serious offense or just for a self-serving reason.

A man and his estranged girlfriend are sitting in a car arguing over visitation arrangements concerning their 14-month-old son, who is in the back seat. A robber comes up to them, shoots her fatally and then shoots him in the leg. After he tells slightly different versions of events to detectives, they become suspicious. When he is visited in the hospital by a cousin who closely fits the description of the gunman, they are both arrested and charged with murder. (Baker, 2008)

A 20-year-old Army private tells detectives at a hospital that he was shot in the knee during a rob- bery. But the police investigators determine that he arranged to be wounded to avoid having to return to combat duty in Iraq. He pleads guilty to the misde- meanor of falsely reporting an incident, and receives a sentence of one year in jail. He also is ordered to return to his military base, where he may be subjected to a court martial. His wife and the accomplice who shot him for a fee of $500 also face conspiracy, assault, false reporting, and illegal gun possession charges. (Chan, 2007)

The founder and leader of a nationwide civilian anticrime patrol garners favorable media coverage when he tells reporters that he was injured when he tried to capture three rapists at a subway station. He also shows off bruises that he claims he sustained when he came to the rescue of a person being mugged but actually were the result of an accident. Years later, after nearly dying from a shooting, the anticrime crusader and talk-show host admits that he conspired with other members of the newly formed group to

stage a series of six publicity stunts to further the organization’s reputation for courage and effective- ness. About a dozen years after that, this acknowl- edged fabrication is used by a defense attorney to undermine his credibility with a jury when he testifies against a mob boss who, the prosecution alleges, ordered his assassination for mocking and taunting the Mafia on his talk-radio show. (Gonzalez, 1992; Preston, 2005; and Cornell, 2006).

A television network weather forecaster tells detectives that she was attacked twice by the same man, once while jogging in the park and again near her home. When the police can’t find any eyewitnesses, she confesses that “I made it up for attention. I have so much stress at work, with my personal life, and with my family.” Facing a jail sentence for filing a false complaint, the judge sentences her to probation and 350 hours of community service, the same amount of time the police spent investigating her phony claims. (Cornell, 2011).

It is always possible that the person alleging to be a bona fide victim is making a fraudulent claim for some ulterior purpose. People might falsely swear under penalty of perjury that they were harmed by criminals for a number of reasons. An angry person may exact revenge against an enemy by getting him in trouble with the law. An individual who did something improper may want to cover up the true circumstances surrounding an event (for exam- ple, when a husband claims he was robbed to account for the loss of his pay, which he actually spent on a prostitute or gambled away).

Hoaxes can be very socially divisive and dam- aging to race relations, especially when whites falsely claim they were viciously attacked by black suspects, setting off manhunts. Highly pub- licized examples include a husband who killed his wife but insisted she was shot during a hold-up (until his lie was exposed and he jumped off a bridge), and a young mother who drowned her unwanted little children by driving her vehicle down a boat ramp but swore that they were kid- napped and driven off by a carjacker (see Russell- Brown, 2008).

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A more mundane motive for lying is to com- mit insurance fraud. For example, tourists may dishonestly claim that they were robbed of their cash-filled wallets or expensive cameras as part of a scam to get reimbursement for nonexistent losses from insurance policies sold to travelers (Associated Press, 1999b). One area in which false claims of victimization routinely constitute a major problem concerns allegations of vehicle theft. Detectives on the auto squad and insurance company investigators suspect that as many as 10 percent of all persons who enter police stations with tales of woe about vehicles that have van- ished are faking in order to collect reimburse- ments they are not entitled to (Jay, 2011). “Owner give-ups” refer to illegal transactions where the vehicle is driven off a pier or ramp into a body of water (“splashed”), set on fire (“torched”), or simply abandoned so that it can be reported as stolen in order to avoid debts. As a result of schemes like this, a list of signs of sus- picious behavior has been compiled to weed out the fraudsters from the genuine victims of grand larceny auto (see Box 6.2).

It is appropriate for detectives to take all plau- sible complaints seriously and to search for evidence that will substantiate a person’s account of what happened. Deceptions are exposed by thorough investigations that look into vague descriptions and turn up inconsistencies each time the account is repeated, pieces of the puzzle that don’t add up, an absence of witnesses, and events in the complai- nant’s background that raise suspicions and under- mine credibility. Unfortunately, major hoaxes as well as petty false claims can waste taxpayer money and precious police resources that could be put to better use investigating real crimes and helping genuine victims (Radford, 2013).

Two categories of errors are possible when handling complaints from people insisting they are innocent victims. The first type, illustrated by the above examples, occurs when detectives initially believe a person who later is exposed as a liar. The other type of mistake, illustrated below, is to disbelieve the account of someone who really is telling the truth.

A 26-year-old mother of two accepts a ride from a stranger who kidnaps her. For the next two months, this retired handyman with an ailing wife holds her captive in a concrete bunker in his backyard and repeatedly rapes her. When he finally releases her, she runs to the police and tells of her ordeal as a sex slave. They don’t take this kidnap and rape victim’s story seriously, finding it hard to believe. Eventually, four additional young runaways and drug abusers recount horrific tales that are similar. Finally, the police launch an investigation, locate the bunker, and arrest the man who quickly pleads guilty to these vicious crimes. (Jacobs, 2003; Smalley and Mnookin, 2003)

Unfounding, illustrated by the above case, is a process in which the police reject a person’s claim about being harmed by a criminal as unbelievable or at least unprovable in court. Defounding means that detectives believe an offense really did take place, but it was not as serious as the complainant described (Lundman, 1980). For example, what was initially reported as a burglary might upon further investigation be classified as merely an instance of criminal trespass—which is a misdemeanor rather than a felony—if nothing of value was stolen.

Just as individuals might have a motive to lodge a false charge, police investigators might have an incentive to declare a report of a crime completely unfounded or to defound it down to a lesser offense. By defounding and unfounding complaints, detectives can reduce the number of serious crimes recorded in their precincts, perhaps because their supervisors want to convince the public that the crime rate is decreasing impres- sively. Detectives might cut down the number of difficult cases they must try to solve by abusing their discretion and writing off legitimate pleas for help. For example, for more than 20 years, Chicago detectives dismissed about 21 percent of their complaints about serious crimes as unfounded; the average rate for other big-city departments was less than 2 percent, according to the FBI. Detectives were inclined to dismiss vic- tims’ accounts as unfounded because they would receive higher ratings and faster promotions if they


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“closed” more cases. Auditors reviewing these police files concluded that as many as 40 percent of the rape, robbery, burglary, and theft reports disre- garded as unfounded probably did take place as the victims claimed. The kinds of cases that were prime candidates for official disbelief involved victims who were difficult to contact, knew their assailants, or did not lose much money (“Chicago Police,” 1983; “Burying Crime in Chicago,” 1983).

In Oakland, California, overworked detectives in the late 1980s dismissed 24 percent of the rape complaints they received as unfounded. At that time, the FBI reported that other departments across the country disbelieved about 9 percent of all rape charges. After a newspaper article questioned why there was such a disparity in the unfounding rate,

the police chief conceded that perhaps 200 cases were tossed aside too quickly and merited reexami- nation. But detectives in this California city advanced several arguments in their own defense. First, they asserted that the nationwide figure of 9 percent was a misleading standard for comparison, since many departments keep the unfounding rate artificially low by classifying cases as “filed pending further investigation” (not officially closed) rather than “closed due to baseless or false charges.” Sec- ond, they pointed out that because of budget con- straints, the sexual assault unit’s six investigators were so swamped with cases that they had to prioritize their workload. They felt pressured to disregard complaints from women who would appear unco- operative, untruthful, or unsympathetic in court,

B O X 6.2 Which Individuals Who Claim to Be “Victims” of Auto Theft Might Be Suspected of Engaging in Fraud by Law Enforcement and Insurance Investigators?

The following warning signs could arouse the suspicion of auto squad detectives and insurance company adjusters that the person who reports that his car was stolen might not be a genuine crime victim and that the alleged theft might be a “QC” (questionable claim) that merits closer scrutiny as a possible attempt at fraud:

Red Flags: The Auto Theft “Victim”…

Filed a false claim in the past

Received insurance reimbursement for a vehicle theft in the past

Is very knowledgeable about the process for filing a claim and insurance terminology

Owns a car that has a history of expensive mechanical repairs (a “lemon”) or gets very poor mileage (a “gas guzzler”)

Asserts that very expensive items were in the vehicle when it was taken

Has fallen behind in loan payments on the vehicle and faces repossession, has many outstanding tickets, or is beset by serious financial problems

Has very recently taken out the policy with this insur- ance company, the coverage is about to expire, or a cancellation notice has been sent out

Has recently moved into the current address or uses a post office box, does not have a telephone or only has a

cell phone, is difficult to contact, or has just been hired or just lost a job

Has purchased the policy by walking off the street into an insurance agency and putting down cash for a binder

Has paid only for minimum liability coverage but for maximum comprehensive fire/theft coverage on an expensive late model vehicle

Has waited several days before notifying the police of the alleged disappearance

Is notified that the vehicle has been recovered but was stripped, burned, severely damaged, or found with a seized engine or blown transmission but without a compromised steering column or ignition lock shortly after it was reported missing

Has documents (title, registration, license plate, vehicle identification number) that contain mistakes or irregularities

Presses for a quick settlement but avoids making state- ments under oath and requests that the check be picked up by a friend or relative

Has contacted a salvage yard or repair shop that takes an unusual interest in the claim

SOURCES: Jay, 2011; Ohio Insurance Board, 2011; Louisiana State Police’s Insurance Fraud Unit, 2011.

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such as prostitutes and drug abusers who would be inclined to lie about the circumstances surrounding the sexual assaults for fear of getting in trouble for solicitation or possession of controlled substances. Finally, the detectives insisted that many of the com- plainants refused to agree to medical examinations and failed to appear for follow-up interviews, mak- ing the investigation of their charges difficult, time consuming, and unlikely to lead to convictions (Gross, 1990).

Similarly, in New Orleans five detectives in the special victims squad were transferred for failing to thoroughly investigate hundreds of sexual assault complaints from 2011 to 2013. Many of the com- plaints were simply filed under the heading “mis- cellaneous,” and no further action was taken. In hundreds of other cases, an initial report was filled out but no effort was made to gather evidence. Detectives also routinely discouraged complainants in sexual assault cases from pursuing prosecution of the alleged rapists (Robertson, 2014).

Investigators do not want to be manipulated or deceived, of course. Even though lie detector tests are not admissible in court because their findings are not considered reliable, NYPD detectives received authorization in 2005 to use polygraphs during the early stages of an investigation to test their suspi- cions that a suspect, a witness, or a complainant was lying to them (Celona, 2005).

People who knowingly fill out false complaints are breaking the law in most states if they gratu- itously volunteer unsolicited, incorrect information to the police. The laws that make it a misdemeanor to file a false instrument (statement) are intended to deter perjury and thereby protect innocent indivi- duals from the embarrassment and hardships caused by untrue accusations. A lying complainant who instigates a wrongful arrest for an improper motive such as revenge also can be sued in civil court for malicious prosecution.

However, to encourage citizen cooperation with law enforcement, most jurisdictions have adopted a doctrine of witness immunity that shields complainants who furnish information to the police “in good faith” from any subsequent lawsuits by innocent individuals they mistakenly identified as

suspects (Stark and Goldstein, 1985). But those who waste the time and money of law enforcement agencies by filing patently false accusations can get into legal trouble, as the following example demonstrates.

A young woman mysteriously disappears while jog- ging just four days before her elaborate wedding. Hundreds of neighbors, wedding guests, and police officers search the area and pass out missing person flyers, while bloodhounds scour the banks of a nearby river and media outlets across the country broadcast her description. Her fiancé, the last person to see her, comes under suspicion but resists pressures by the police to take a lie detector test. Several days later and hundreds of miles away she reappears; she calls 911 and tells the authorities that she just was released by a Hispanic man and a white woman who had kid- napped her. A few hours later, the “runaway bride” admits she had gotten “cold feet” and had taken a long bus ride. Her friends, family, and neighbors are both relieved and furious that she was not a victim of foul play. Their views and her problems become the fodder for talk shows and tabloid headlines. In court, she pleads no contest to one felony count of making a false statement to the police, and the judge imposes a sentence of two years on probation, 120 hours of community service, plus a fine. (Johnston, 2005)

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