Jett Moxley, a victim advocate with the YWCA New Britain SACS, acts as a sexual assault victim in an exercise to teach police recruits how to interview those reporting incidents in a trauma-informed way. Tyler Russell / Connecticut Public

In 2018, a woman walked into the Meriden Police Department to report that she had been raped in her home. She never imagined that several months later she’d be arrested and charged with making it up.

“I’m with my daughter and I receive a phone call and he says to me, ‘You need to turn yourself in,’” she recalled, “and I was like, ‘Turn myself in?’ What had I done that I need to turn myself in?”

According to the incident report, an investigator doubted her account because he believes she left out details about what happened.

She eventually pleaded guilty in court to interfering with a police officer. She says it felt like her only choice to avoid potential jail time.

Connecticut Public agreed not to identify her in this story so that she could speak freely about her experience.

“You know how many times I told my therapist, when she asked me … if I feel safe at home, and I say to her ‘No,’” the woman said.

Multiple studies show less than 10% of reported sexual assaults are false. But in Connecticut, and across the country, there are numerous examples of people who report these crimes being charged themselves when police doubt their claims.

Journalist Rachel De Leon studied the issue. Her work is the subject of the new Netflix documentary “Victim/Suspect.” De Leon’s reporting showed police sometimes lack adequate training on how to handle these cases.

And for victims, the effects of a false reporting arrest can be devastating, said Beth Hamilton, executive director of the Connecticut Alliance to End Sexual Violence.

“For a survivor who’s had this really awful experience … to then be charged with a crime could probably be the worst thing that could ever happen to them on top of what’s already happened to them,” Hamilton said.

Learning about trauma

Meriden police declined multiple requests from Connecticut Public to discuss how the department handled the 2018 case. A representative said the department did not wish to comment because the incident happened several years ago.

The Accountability Project shared a police report describing the circumstances in that case with Justin Boardman, a retired police officer who provides training in trauma-informed sexual assault investigations.

Boardman said he thinks the detective didn’t gather enough evidence to make an arrest for false reporting.

“None of this proves that the rape didn’t happen,” Boardman said.

The way police handle these cases differs across the state. Some departments have policies that emphasize understanding trauma, including the Meriden Police Department. Its policy includes phrases such as: “There is no typical reaction [to sexual assault], so it is important to refrain from being judgmental.”

Some officers also get more rigorous training about interacting with survivors.

Brian Reilly, a training officer for Connecticut’s Police Officer Standards and Training Council, started teaching at the police academy in 2018.

His curriculum for the sexual assault course stresses that police should try to understand the victim’s experience.

“Prior to my teaching, we were very concerned on the law, and what the law said, and how to do the law,” Reilly said. “We didn’t concentrate as much on victims, on how it’s affecting the victims, and the people surrounding the victims.”

The Accountability Project went to the academy on a day Reilly’s class was practicing trauma-informed interviews. Victim advocates played the role of sexual assault victims, allowing trainees to put training material into practice.

This kind of in-depth focus on the experience of victims isn’t universal in Connecticut. Instructors can choose how they teach about sexual assault, so long as they meet the police academy’s goals and objectives.

But it can make a big difference in how officers handle rape investigations, said Kerry Dalling, a former Connecticut detective and former academy instructor. Dalling said the state has focused more on this type of training within the last few years.

“I think the biggest thing that police departments should definitely try to focus on, and I think there is a focus on it now, is working in partnership with advocacy agencies,” Dalling said. “They’re the ones that really are the ones providing the training on trauma-informed interviewing.”

Hamilton, from the Connecticut Alliance to End Sexual Violence, said the resources available to train officers have not kept pace with the prevalence of sexual violence in the state.

“Almost always when we are working with law enforcement who are not being supportive of victims, it very often comes back to them not understanding how victims process information during and following these types of violence,” Hamilton said.

The woman who reported her assault in Meriden said she doesn’t feel like she got that kind of trauma-informed treatment.

“The people who are supposed to take care of me and defend me and put the law and order has failed me,” she said.

This story was first published June 20, 2023 by Connecticut Public.