Law enforcement officers are the frequent victim of false allegations by members of the public. False reports against law enforcement officers often include allegations of theft, excessive use of force, domestic violence, assault, sexual harassment or sexual assault, racism or racial profiling. False allegations against officers can destroy their reputations, strip them of their jobs, and strip them of their freedom, leading to lengthy prison sentences for crimes they never committed. False allegations against officers also present a cost to the community by forcing cities to pay large sums of public money to fight the allegations or reach settlements with accusers to avoid costly legal expenses. HOW FREQUENT ARE FALSE ALLEGATIONS AGAINST POLICE? Law enforcement agencies report that officers are a common target of false allegations. "Police officers with any time on the job soon come to appreciate the frequency with which false reports are made against police officers," write the authors of False Allegations: Investigative and Forensic Issues in Fraudulent Reports of Crime. For example, a Detroit Police Association President explained that fake claims against police are common after a woman falsely accused two Detroit police officers of rape in 2016, an allegation that was disproved by their patrol car dash cam. Law Enforcement Today describes numerous recent false allegations and claims against officers that were proven to be false by body cam or dash cam footage. The footage was often released by agencies to prove their officers had done nothing wrong. Citizens frequently complain about officers' use of force, yet a large percentage of such complaints, 25% in one study, are unfounded, meaning that the complaint was not based on facts, or the reported incident did not occur. A Bureau of Justice Statistics study discovered that 25% of 26,000 use of force complaints against approximately 400,000 officers in large agencies (those having at least 100 officers) in 2002 were unfounded. Only 8% of the use of force complaints were sustained, meaning there was sufficient evidence for the accused officer to face disciplinary action. This does not mean that the remainder of the use of force complaints (92%) were lies, however. The remainder of complaints included the 25% that were unfounded, as well as cases that either lacked sufficient evidence to prove them, led to officers being exonerated because their use of force was determined to be lawful and proper, or resulted in the complaint being withdrawn. The take home message is that law enforcement officers are often accused of misconduct that either simply did not occur or lacked evidence to support the allegations.
WHY DO CITIZENS FALSELY ACCUSE POLICE OFFICERS? Citizens make false reports against law enforcement officers for a variety of reasons, some intentional and some not. Citizens' motives for accusing police of wrongdoing include revenge against police, attempts by citizens to avoid criminal penalties for their own crimes, and financial gain from civil lawsuits against law enforcement officers, agencies, and cities. Other causes of false allegations against police are that people who lodge complaints may be struggling with mental illness or may be under the influence of drugs that alter their perception of events when stopped by police. After a woman falsely accused two Detroit police officers of rape in 2016, which was disproved by their patrol car dash cam, the woman later admitted that she was under the influence of alcohol and under medication for a serious mental condition when she made her allegation. She is reported to have apologized "for making up the whole story and potentially destroying the lives of those officers." This woman's allegation is a good example of how whether or not an alleged victim seeks a Sexual Assault Nurse Examination (SANE) kit cannot be used as proof that an allegation is true. Before the woman admitted her allegation was fabricated, she went to the hospital for a Sexual Assault Nurse Examination (SANE) kit, which was administered. The nurse noted no signs of injury or trauma. While discussing this false rape allegation case, the Detroit Police Association President said that often people make false allegations against police officers and file lawsuits just to see if the city will settle out of court for a cash payment. He explained, "In the past, there have been so many cases where a municipality will actually settle out of court instead of litigating a case, just to save the cost of litigating a case." "This is nothing short of urban terrorism," the Detroit Police Association President concluded, because the false accusers "try to take freedom away from those who do nothing more than try to keep our citizens safe." False allegations against police harm not only the officers but the community at large.
HOW TO STOP FALSE ALLEGATIONS AGAINST POLICE OFFICERS The consistent use of body cameras and dash cams protects law enforcement officers from false allegations and also protects the public from officer misconduct. Recommendations to reduce false reporting are described in the book False Allegations: Investigative and Forensic Issues in Fraudulent Reports of Crime, and those recommendations include:
Officers should use body cameras, including audio, and patrol car dash cams when responding to calls and during contact with the public.
Supervisors must review footage and audio, turning it over immediately in its unedited form to the defense following an allegation.
Body camera and dash cam footage should be made public when there is a criminal complaint to show that agencies are committed to increasing public trust and respect.