The schoolyard bully who lashes out at their classmates is often hurting inside, but these misguided cries for help can senselessly endanger those around them. Just as in false allegations of sexual assault, those who feel ignored may not consider the consequences of their actions when seeking the attention they so desperately want. And while it isn’t just young people who commit these acts, the difficult teen and preteen years often lead to more cases of false allegations of bullying, abuse, or assault.
This was the case when the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department investigated an assault on a middle school girl. She claimed she was dragged into the restroom by a group of girls and that one of the accused used a sharp object to carve two-inch letters into her abdomen. The letters signified a local Hispanic street gang.
This was not just an average case of bullying but rather a criminal act of assault which appeared to have racial overtones and could easily have escalated into a more extreme, violent situation. In cases such as these, the key to resolution is listening. For law enforcement, this means using empathic techniques in the interview room and using all available resources to protect the innocent from further attacks inspired by false accusations.
Approaching the Victim Interview with Empathy
When police are interviewing a potential victim of a crime—especially a frightened minor—it’s important to be sensitive and non-aggressive. This girl was clearly traumatized and physically hurt, but she still had to be questioned about what happened. CVSA Analyst/Detective Bill Gentry offered the victim a chance to tell her story and confirm the validity of her claims with the aid of the Computer Voice Stress Analyzer (CVSA®).
The CVSA is a truth verification system that uses a much less intimidating process than the polygraph. The technology simply requires a microphone, which is clipped to the individual’s clothing to record their answers to a series of both non-relevant and relevant questions. It can be used in any setting, and the person being questioned can move around unhindered by sensors attached to the body. This is particularly useful when an interview subject may be afraid of authority figures or nervous about the examination.
Gentry’s CVSA examination indicated deception, and he showed the chart to the girl. Caught in her own web of lies, she broke down crying and admitted that she had made the story up and cut the letters into her own body. She wanted her mother’s attention, but in her search for recognition, she put other young girls at risk of criminal prosecution.
Preventing Further Escalation
The group of falsely accused girls was already guilty in the minds of the parents at the school, and some of them organized a protest march on the school board. There was also likely an element of discrimination here, as the girl who made the accusation appeared to target Latinos by using letters of a Hispanic gang. Although it is unclear whether such a bias was a motivating factor in this case, we do know this could easily have sparked a racial divide in the school and the community as parents rose up to protect their children from the alleged gang in the middle school.
Teenagers spread news like wildfire on social media, and it is much more difficult to take back an accusation than to spread fake news about someone. A 2016 study showed that social media posts that are rumor-based spread faster and more widely than those that are true, and while “the median true rumor is resolved in about two hours, the median false rumor takes over 14 hours to be resolved.” As such, this girl’s false claim could have led to further incidents as the accused girls faced not only legal action or arrest but condemnation and discrimination from their community. Just one lie can create a devastating social fallout, especially for young people who struggle to cope with ostracization. Fortunately, by eliciting a confession at the outset of the investigation, Detective Gentry was able to put the brakes on what could have become a much worse situation.
Detective Gentry—whose police department has four CVSA systems and 20 trained CVSA Examiners—found that the quick resolution of this case saved many investigative hours. It also stopped the escalation of further violent actions that might have resulted from this crime. If these young girls had moved further into the justice system, it would have resulted in a domino effect—tying up the court system and taking valuable time from social workers, school counselors, and teachers. One lie can ruin lives, but with empathic interview techniques and scientifically proven truth verification systems, law enforcement can expose those lies as quickly and effectively as possible in order to protect the falsely accused.
Please reach out to us at NITV Federal Services to learn more about our CVSA systems and training programs.