Time-wasting liars keep cops from checking actual crimes
It was every parent's nightmare: On June 9, a 13-year-old girl called police to report that a man had forced her into his car as she was walking home from the Newark Library. The man tried to sexually assault her in his car, she said, but she was able to escape unharmed. The girl provided police with detailed descriptions of her kidnapper and his car: A 5-foot-6 man with spiky hair, a tattoo under his eye and acne on his face, driving a black sedan with heavily tinted windows and chrome rims.
Armed with that information, Newark police assigned a detective to find the girl's assailant before he could strike again. After investing 96 man-hours in the case, Lt. Gerald Simpson said, police uncovered the truth.
The whole story was a lie, made up by a young girl who wanted to keep her parents from knowing she had been visiting her boyfriend without their permission.
All costs considered, Simpson said this case "easily" wasted more than "a few thousand dollars." The detective assigned had put aside work on the rape of a college-aged woman and four robberies to investigate the girl's claims.
Police agencies across Delaware say such false reports are a chronic problem, depleting their departments of resources, while deferring their attention from real crimes.
"Those 96 hours we put in, we missed out on looking into crimes that are legitimate," Simpson said. "I don't know why we end up being pawns in these matters, but we have to fully investigate everything brought to our attention."
Newark police spent 3 1/2 days investigating the girl's lies, Simpson said. They brought in a composite sketch artist from out of state. Officers collected and watched video-camera tapes from the scene of the reported crime, but could find no footage of the girl being forced into a car.
On June 12, officers confronted the girl with the inconsistencies in her story because "things just weren't adding up," and she admitted making up the story, Simpson said.
She was charged with one count of falsely reporting an incident, then released to her parents on $1,000 bond under the conditions that she undergoes a mental health assessment, obeys a 6 p.m. curfew and has pre-trial supervision, Newark police Lt. Brian Henry said.
False police reports became national news fodder last month when Bonnie Sweeten, 38, of Philadelphia, faked her own abduction by making a series of panicky 911 calls. She was found the next day in Orlando, Fla., with her 9-year-old daughter, at a hotel near Disney World.
Sweeten was released on $1 million bond and charged with two misdemeanors -- filing a false police report, and identity theft because she used another woman's identity in her getaway.
In Delaware, lying to the police carries a mandatory minimum fine of $500, 100 hours of community service and repayment to the state for the cost of the investigation and responses, according to the state's criminal code. First offenses are misdemeanors, but subsequent lies to police may be felonies.
"We have asked for restitution to be paid back for the officers' time and base it on his hourly rate or overtime rate," Dover police Lt. Tim Stump said. "It can be very costly to the person making the false claim."
Newark, New Castle County, Wilmington and Dover police and the Delaware State Police all said they handle several false reports each year, though none provided specific numbers.
"The Delaware State Police would much rather respond to legitimate incidents rather than investigate a person's fabricated, poorly concocted story," state police spokesman Cpl. Jeff Whitmarsh said. "There is more than enough work to go around."
Whitmarsh speculated that state police are involved in fewer false reports than agencies responsible for crime "at the street level."
Many cases that DSP investigates involve surveillance equipment or a number of witnesses, he said, whereas smaller departments may have victims alleging crimes where there's no proof of the story except for the victim's word.
New Castle County Police Cpl. Trinidad Navarro said false reports are a "tremendous burden" on his department, as they must treat all reported cases as if they are legitimate until otherwise proven or the fibber backs off his tale.
"We have seen people lose their money gambling or on drugs, and lie about being a victim of a robbery so that their spouses won't be upset," Navarro said. "We have also had persons falsely report rapes or sexual assaults because their significant others found out about their unfaithful behaviors. It is very difficult to prove and often wastes valuable time and resources."
Though people falsely report all manner of crimes, police say a common theme emerges repeatedly: Often the person is trying to hide an embarrassing event from friends and family.
"Everybody's motivation is different as to why they would lie to the police about an event," Simpson said. "But they're usually covering up something that they're either embarrassed about or that they don't want someone else in their life to know happened."
Wilmington police spokesman Master Sgt. Steven Barnes said his department investigated two false police reports last year involving shootings. The victims in both instances said they had been shot by someone else when, in fact, they had accidentally fired a gun and shot themselves.
"As the investigation goes, their story starts to change," Barnes said. "And, though it doesn't turn out to be obvious, when the physical evidence shows us the truth, and their lies can no longer be covered, they'll usually admit they were covering something up. The physical evidence helps a lot with these cases, but either way they've tied up the detective and the patrol divisions at the same time because we're looking for suspects to a crime that didn't occur."
Another common theme among false reports is the tendency to blame a minority for the false crime: The Newark teen, for example, described her abductor as Hispanic, and Sweeten said she was stuffed in a car trunk by two black men.
Last year, GOP volunteer Ashley Todd, who is white, claimed a 6-foot-4 black man carved a "B" into her cheek (for Barack, evidently). She admitted to Pittsburgh police in October 2008 that she made up the story.
In her book, "The Color of Crime," law professor Katheryn Russell-Brown documented 67 racial hoaxes in the period between 1987 and 1996.
Simpson said officers "let the facts take them where they need to go," and, when suspicion of a false report arises, they often bring the person back to ask more pointed questions.
"You have to take everything that's reported at face value," he said. "We treat them all seriously, but the truth is that people lie to us. Not everybody wants to tell us the truth. And, sadly, I think it makes some of the investigators a bit cynical."