Nancy Schwartzman introduces the press line of her film Victim/Suspect, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. © 2023 Sundance Institute | photo by Rachael Galipo
By Aliese Muhonen
For one woman, it was in Alabama, 2015. For another, it was in Virginia, 2020. Both women were college students, and both had been sexually assaulted. And though their cases were years and miles apart, the outcome was disturbingly similar.
They went to their local police stations to report their assaults and left in handcuffs. Already victims, the women were further victimized by police interrogation techniques that bullied them into recanting their accusations and jailed them for filing false reports. Their lives unraveled as they were charged with criminal misdemeanors and disgraced in news outlets and on social media.
The women’s stories are two of over 200 cases found by Center for Investigative Reporting journalist Rachel “Rae” de Leon, whose national probe into damaging police practices and subsequent quest for victim justice is profiled in the eye-opening Victim/Suspect. The documentary premiered January 23 in the U.S. Documentary Competition.
A project three years in the making from director Nancy Schwartzman (Roll Red Roll), the film features not only victims’ stories, but interviews with police detectives, attorneys, and legal experts who deconstruct systemic problems in sexual assault handling. The most stunning (and infuriating) moments belong to interrogation footage that took years to obtain. It’s stark evidence of the misused techniques that police officers employ when questioning victims.
“The 20 hours of police material that Rae fought for, sued for … we had it, and to me what’s so compelling is to be able to craft a film around these officers in their own words, in their own language, using their tactics, and then to meet the people on the other side of it to expose the harms that that can do,” Schwartzman says at the post-premiere Q&A. “And also in tandem this really was a love letter to investigative journalism, and how powerful it is and what it takes.”
Essential viewing for everyone, the film serves as an alarming education on the methods police use to question sexual assault victims — often the same as those employed on suspected criminals. We watch as victims are questioned for hours in intentionally cold interrogation rooms (the same uncomfortable rooms used to question suspects of crimes), and as police leave victims alone in the rooms for long stretches of time — both tactics meant to increase the anxiety of the person being questioned.
Even more appalling is the officers’ use of deceptive evidence or ruse — an interrogation technique where they literally lie about evidence in order to solicit confessions. Though the tactics are effective on perpetrators, they’re detrimental to assault victims.
“You’re not getting the truth out when you do these things. You’re confusing someone who’s traumatized and already has memory difficulties,” Lisa Avalos, an attorney and law professor, explains in the film.
But most shocking of all is the result of these tactics and the unfortunate motive of some officers: bullying victims to recant their accusations and confess to making a false report, punishable with prison time.
But why force a recant and arrest, de Leon asks in the film. Why wouldn’t an officer just dismiss the case if they’re doubtful of the victim’s claims? “Because [arrests] are easy,” replies Carl Hershman, a cop of 32 years who investigates sex crimes and teaches sexual assault training to other officers. Sexual assault cases require longer investigations, he tells de Leon. To a cop looking for an easy way out, a recant and arrest will close the investigation, and “it’s another one off [their] desk.”
While the film isn’t a blanket accusation about all police departments, de Leon finds that the tactics are widespread, and few police departments will admit to utilizing them. Some refused to provide the footage they lied about, so de Leon had to sue the departments.
Though de Leon was able to help some victims pursue and obtain justice, the sobering reality for hundreds of falsely charged victims remains. Two of the victims — the women from Alabama and Virginia — were present at the Q&A; they urged the audience to believe victims and take care in what they share on social media. Hershman was present as well, and advocated for better training for officers. Schwartzman hopes the film leads to change, and ended her comments with a message of hope.
“I think anger does bring people to action,” she says. “The raw surveillance police material is enraging … but we [couldn’t] make [Victim/Suspect] all horrible so that people don’t want to take action. … The smarter we all can get, the better informed we are to fight this, whether on a local [or] national level. It’s not OK that they’re doing this; it’s not ok that law enforcement lies to people, and then tapes it, and then we get to put it into a film. So I really wanted to balance that anger, Rae’s journey and passion, and these women’s incredible humor and levity. These are young, awesome, cool girls! They’re more than just this terrible thing [that happened to them].”