Content warning: This article discusses sexual assault and police misconduct.
The highly anticipated crime documentary “Victim/Suspect” was released May 23 on Netflix. Director Nancy Schwartzman, incites a heart-rending and insightful film project that is challenging yet necessary to view. Compelling the audience to remain engaged and refrain from averting their gaze, the documentary chronicles Investigative Journalist Rachel De Leon’s four-year investigation into the appalling pattern that began when she stumbled upon a story of a young woman being arrested for the false report of rape in 2018.
While there are many documentaries revolving cases and investigations, “Victim/Suspect” is one of few to shine light into the systematic scrutiny of victims that have experienced sexual assault. Working at the Center of Investigative Reporting in Oakland at the time, the documentary captures Leon’s findings in real-time videography. It takes the viewer through her exhaustive and extensive research as the undeniable trend of police intimidation, sexism, outdated and restrictive police tactics and non-regulating police departments becomes apparent.
At a first look, the documentary presents the story in a professional manner, having a purposely thought out display of audio recordings from interviews, disturbing interrogation room footage and requesting FOIAs of a few selected counties. It also provides firsthand accounts of survivors and their family, meeting with experts and an interview with the only police official willing to talk after three years: the lead detective of the opening case. Taking a journalistic approach not only allowed for the survivors to share their story without the doubt of officers and their manipulating and suggestive tactics to elicit a confession, but was also a setup to look at the broad problem. Local and nationwide systematic policing policies teach officials handling sexual assault cases to treat their victims like suspects, which harmfully impacts victims lives and places other women at risk by letting their assailant walk free.
As a female college student, the documentary, more specifically the cases involved, elicited empathy and outrage for how the police handled their investigations. Falling victim to police processes, it’s disappointing to know that victims did everything right, from going to get a rape kit to reporting what had happened to them. Furthermore, there are also controversial police tactics that are designed to elicit confessions such as the “Reid” or “Ruse” technique. A combination of these trainings and skepticism from the person interrogating shifts the objectives of the investigation. Instead of believing the victim, the goal is now to apply pressure and rely on the reporting victim to retract their allegations. The striking audacity proceeding this is the law enforcement then proceeding to then charge the victim with false reporting leaves the audience in disbelief.
The right to privacy as a victim is taken, with many of the survivors in the documentary experiencing the police posting an article about their false reporting arrest on social media platforms. With that information being plastered everywhere, journalists and reporters pick up this “claimed to be true” information and republish it without their own investigation. The Criminal Justice System is responsible and, instead, should be releasing reliable information after a thorough investigation.
As the scope extends outward, what she finds only further supports her investigation and provides a much broader picture of the vital point. A pattern emerges from looking at a collective of false reporting cases, such as the distinct parallels. While the victim is held in interrogation for hours the alleged assailant is briefly talked to or not at all. In the early cases reviewed, many times the police would lie about having evidence that conflicted with the story of the victim, with a badgering of questions on what seemed to no end, this often lead to them being cajoled into recanting. There was visible bias involving the investigating officers, that was reflected in the gaps and inconsistencies in their investigation.
With many crime documentaries being released, and media obsession with the “Gone Girl Effect,” this documentary doesn’t lose sight of the mission that the #MeToo movement started a decade ago. While the documentary allowed for survivors to tell their stories, it also proves the injustice that many young women face when reporting to the authorities. The justified rage and frustration felt when seeing the actions of systems that are meant to protect us, protect abusers is horrifying to spectate. Uniquely, focusing on a collective instead of just one case, Leon takes transparent measures through her research, interviews and efforts to engage with key authorities, despite encountering resistance from police departments.
Verdict: With there being many true crime documentaries in our sphere, the impact of “Suspect/Victim” is unknown. However, there are educational takeaways and much needed reminders of the issues at hand that everyone should be aware of.