Assessing Police Classifications of Sexual Assault Reports: A Meta-Analysis of False Reporting Rates

Legal Principles
Diana Davison
September 22, 2018

Review of “Assessing Police Classifications of Sexual Assault Reports: A Meta-Analysis of
False Reporting Rates” (Ferguson & Malouff, 2016)

One of the problems in dealing with accusations of sexual assault in the court of public opinion, in the workplace, at schools, and in the criminal courts, is that there is no consensus on the rate of true and false accusations. At one extreme are the few who believe that most (i.e. more than 50%) of reports of sexual assault are false (Heenan & Murray, 2006 cited in Ferguson & Malouff, 2016, p. 1185) while at another extreme there are those who claim that false reports of sexual assault are virtually non-existent (Theilade & Thomsen, 1986 cited in Ferguson & Malouff, 2016, p. 1185). The authors dismiss these extreme positions by calling them “misperceptions” that make dealing with reports of sexual assault “much more difficult” (Ferguson & Malouff, 2016, p. 1185).

Then, there are also those who claim that false reports of sexual assault are just as infrequent as false reports of any other crime: 2% (Russell & Bolen, 2000; Wells, 1985 cited in Ferguson & Malouff, 2016, p. 1186). Ferguson and Malouff find that this position is also incorrect. The authors find that the reason for a lack of consensus in research findings is due to the lack of a consistent definition of ‘false reporting’ (Ferguson & Malouff, 2016, p. 1186). Thus, in agreement with the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP, 2005 cited in Ferguson & Malouff, 2016, p. 1186-7), the authors recommend that researchers define a false allegation as “those reports made which were untrue, which involved maliciousness and consciousness of the untruth on the part of the complainant, and where evidence exists to prove the crime… did not take place” (Ferguson and Malouff, 2016, p. 1187). A “thorough investigation” (p. 1192) is required before a report can be deemed false, according to this definition. This is a “conservative definition” by the authors’ own admission, but they deem it necessary so that “equivocal cases” (i.e. cases that may be false or suspected of being false) are not included, because their inclusion would be too subjective and thus lead to inconsistent research findings due to biases among researchers. However, the authors warn that “[u]se of such a conservative definition is not meant to imply that all other cases are true reports…” (p. 1187). Using this conservative definition and an analysis of seven different studies, which used the same conservative definition, by various researchers who evaluated reports made to police in Canada, Australia, the UK, and the USA, the authors find that false reports of sexual assault occur at a rate of more than 5% (p. 1185), which is higher than the rate of false reports for other crimes (2%). In order to avoid “classification errors… by law enforcement professionals” researchers made independent evaluations rather than rely on police classifications of whether the report was true, false, or equivocal (p. 1187).

The reasons the authors say that the “total false reporting rate, including both confirmed and equivocal cases, would be greater than the 5% rate found here” are two-fold (p. 1185). The first reason is due to the conservative definition of what makes a report ‘false.’ In all likelihood, at least some of the equivocal cases, ones where there is no evidence to show that the report is true or false, are in fact false. 1 The second reason that the actual false reporting rate is higher than 5% is that the reports analyzed by this study include only those made to police. Thus, reports

1 The authors note that “it is also possible that the researchers categorized some true sexual assault reports as false” (1192), but this seems unlikely given the conservative definition for false reports.

made to “medical professionals, crisis centres, campus counselors” are not included. Their inclusion could increase the rate of false reports because “It is arguable that reports made to someone other than police… would involve a higher false allegation rate, since they are easily made, there are fewer consequences, and sometimes greater benefits for the accuser” (p. 1186). The authors note that the studies they analyzed have a number of shortcomings. For instance, “[t]here of the seven studies did not include information on how many cases were in doubt in addition to those confirmed to be false” (p. 1188). Moreover, “another three studies did not include allegations of sexual assault or rapes made to police by males” (p. 1188). As a whole, however, the authors are able to show that it is important to avoid extremist positions in regard to reports of sexual assault. Lately, governments and law enforcement professionals have adopted the position that complainants rarely, if ever lie, about sexual assault. This position has made pressing charges a mere formality, because to investigate the claim is equated with calling the complainant a liar, and it has put pressure on judges and juries to convict defendants in trials despite reasonable doubt of guilt. If the complainant is already framed as a survivor of sexual assault, then their testimony will of course carry more weight than the testimony of the accused.

The authors’ conclusions also support the dismissal of the argument that false reports of sexual assault are no more common than false reports of other crimes. While >5% does not seem like a large percentage, it represents hundreds of falsely accused persons and it is more than double the 2% figure that is often cited by many. Given the higher percentage of false reports, these claims should more thoroughly investigated rather than less. The conservative definition of ‘false reporting’ poses some problems. One is that the mere fact that a false report is not malicious and conscious does not lessen the impact on the person falsely accused. So it may be useful to add the concept of ‘wrongful’ or ‘mistaken’ in addition to ‘proven false’ reports. A wrongful report would be one that is contradicted by evidence, but one that does not have apparent and conscious malice.

Ferguson, C. E., & Malouff, J. M. (2016). Assessing Police Classifications of Sexual Assault Reports:
A Meta-Analysis of False Reporting Rates. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 45(5), 1185–1193.