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Can Someone Please Convince Cops That Most Rape Allegations Are Not False Already?

Research shows only a small number of rape allegations are actually false, so why are the police so hard to convince otherwise?
Idaho State Capitol. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Idaho State Capitol. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

This week, Idaho lawmakers unanimously approved a new system that requires clinics in the state to administer rape kits for any alleged sexual assaults, and to then send the collected forensic evidence out for DNA testing. The seemingly uncontroversial and progressive decision was marred by the comments of Bingham County Sheriff Craig Rowland. On Monday, Rowland told an Idaho television station that "the majority of rapes that are called in are actually consensual sex." Rowland said he believes it should be up to officers, not the legislature, to determine which kits should be sent out for testing, since so many of the accusations they deal with are false.

This myth has deep roots within the brotherhood of law enforcement. For decades, disbelief of victims was the norm. "Women and children complainants in sexual matters are notorious for embroidery or complete fabrication of complaints," Detective Sergeant Alan Firth wrote in a 1975 Police Review article on rape. Even today, individuals who report rapes can, in many cases, be subjected to polygraph tests—a measure rarely deployed against victims of any other type of crime.

It's hardly worth taking up more space on the Internet to debunking this persistent and pernicious myth. But why is this falsehood so popular among cops?

It might come down, at least in part, to their traditional interview training. The techniques they use to gather information on crimes and interrogate suspects don't generally work well for survivors of violent crimes. That's because fear has powerful effects on memory. Terror kicks the memory encoding region of our brain into hyperdrive, giving victims vivid memories of certain components of their environment when fear sets in—like the smell of their attacker's cologne, or the song on the radio. But while some of the memories may be vivid, they also might not be linear, and the fragmented and inconsistent memories that traumatized victims have of events can lead officers to question whether or not they are telling the truth.

"The same things that can look like deception in perpetrators—inconsistencies in the story, looking away from the officer, having memories that are incomplete or sound incoherent—these can lead officers to believe that the person is lying," Jim Hopper, a psychologist who specializes in the brain's response to fear, told Pacific Standard in 2015.

Hopper teaches investigators that these are normal responses to fear. And many police departments have significantly reformed how they deal with rape allegations to be more evidence-based. The new rape kit bill in Idaho (the measure still needs to be approved by Governor Butch Otter) is just the latest example.