Nancy Schwartzman’s Victim/Suspect follows Rae de Leon, a reporter at the Center for Investigative Reporting, as she investigates a disturbing pattern of women reporting sexual assaults to police — who then accuse the women of making it all up, and charge them with making false statements or other crimes. De Leon and Victim/Suspect are quite understandably unable to determine exactly what happened in all of the case they cover, or how pervasive the problem is of police turning victims into suspects. But this rigorous, focused film raises enough questions to spark what will hopefully be an intense examination of police investigative techniques.
Victim/Suspect premiered Monday at Sundance, and while I wasn’t there, I suspect it was preaching to the progressive choir. It’s more thrilling to note that it will soon stream on Netflix, where it will hopefully get the vast, diverse, and needed audience it deserves. Its pithy title and concept — see headline, above — will hopefully hook a big audience that will also be receptive to its complex and diligent reporting. Non-profits like The Center for Investigative Reporting often do the best journalism with the least recognition, and it’s fantastic to see Netflix providing the group such a big platform. The film is head and shoulders above the usual true-crime stories that carry dark voyeuristic thrills but don’t offer any suggestions for how to prevent the next crime, aside from “don’t marry a sociopath.” Victim/Suspect highlights common police procedures with clear flaws.
To wit: Police interrogators’ common, legal practice of using a “ruse,” or misinformation, to catch interviewees in a lie. This practice is questionable enough when it’s used on suspects — it led to the wrongful incarceration of the so-called Central Park Five, for example — but it’s particularly dangerous when used more aggressively on accusers than the accused.
Victim/Suspect explains how the use of “ruses,” under a police interviewing process known as the Reid Technique, has led multiple young women in multiple jurisdictions to “confess” to police that they lied about sexual assault accusations — which then led to those women being prosecuted. Some spoke to de Leon about how they felt pressured by police interrogators to recant. In one case, a woman committed suicide afterward. Though police in her case declined to comment about what went wrong, Victim/Suspect shows us jaw-dropping surveillance footage of police trying to catch the woman in a lie, but chatting with her accuser about catching fish. (He has just returned from a fishing trip… with his attorney.)
The film keeps a tight frame on investigative techniques, but leaves room for debate about a slew of other important issues: Could better-funded and trained police departments do a better job of giving every case the thorough investigation it deserves? And how could the law better handle cases that involve heavy drinking? In one of the cases in Victim/Suspect, a young woman appears to have been blackout drunk, which police see as a weakness in her case. But an increasing number of advocates — including the President of the United States — have made the case that a drunk person can never consent.
Because most officers in the cases decline to comment for Victim/Suspect, we don’t get to hear them make their case for aggressively scrutinizing rape accusers. Given that every defendant in our country is entitled to a presumption of innocence, all criminal accusations of every kind should be carefully investigated, and of course no one wants false reporting.
But the film flags case after case where the accusers are investigated much more thoroughly than the accused. Let’s hope they’re extreme outliers? In one case, police don’t even bother talking to someone they immediately identify as an obvious potential suspect, even to ask him for an alibi. In another, they seem to use surveillance footage of a woman kissing a man to prove what happened later was consensual. A problem: They seem to have identified the wrong woman, and the wrong man. And consenting to a kiss isn’t consenting to more.
One brave investigator does agree to appear on camera explaining his use of the “ruse” technique. As he tries to wow de Leon and the camera with his powers of deduction, she determines — though patient, factual questions — that he has forgotten or overlooked a potentially crucial detail. There’s nothing flashy about it, and no gloating. Just solid investigation.
Main Image: Rae de Leon in Victim/Suspect, which premiered Saturday at the Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.