Until last week, Norfolk, Virginia police classified sexual assault claims to be “unfounded” — or not valid — by default. According to the Virginian-Pilot, a 22-year-old woman’s case prompted Norfolk police chief Mike Goldsmith to update the policy so that officers must now assume rape victims are telling the truth.
The woman reported the attack immediately to police, only to be told, “If we find out that you’re lying, this will be a felony charge.” Before giving her a medical examination, officers subjected the woman to interrogations during which they said things like, “You’re telling us a different story than you told … the other detectives,” and “This only happened hours ago. Why can’t you remember?” Having had enough, the woman cut off the interview.
The police eventually arrested and charged the attacker for multiple other sexual assaults and felonies, and Goldsmith apologized for mishandling the woman’s initial allegations. Now that Goldsmith has updated the policy for handling sexual assault cases, the department will also undergo training for post-traumatic stress disorder and rape trauma.
Many other areas have this same problem. In light of a Baltimore investigation on the city’s high number of unfounded cases, the Police Executive Research Forum noted, “Unwarranted ‘unfounding’ of cases can result in offenders remaining free — and in victims losing trust in the justice system.” This classification also leads to lower reports of rape, because “unfounded” cases are not included in crime stats.
For law enforcement to assume that rape victims are usually lying is a gross misunderstanding of the number of false rape accusations. Only two to eight percent of reported rapes are false reports, and even fewer ever include a specific false accusation. In fact, the real problem is that most rapes go unreported.