When a University of Montana student went to the Missoula Police Department this fall to report that another student had sexually assaulted her in his off-campus apartment, she said an officer asked whether she had a boyfriend.
Why, she wondered, did he need to know that?
Police Chief Mark Muir discussed the question with her when she complained about the way her case was handled.
"The officer very untactfully, rather than explain it, said, ‘We do it because sometimes women make false reports to protect themselves with respect to their boyfriends,' " Muir said.
Although the police chief characterized that response as "really crappy" (he said the officer later was "counseled"), he said there are legitimate reasons to ask. The response could, for instance, explain the results of DNA tests.
Muir said the department considers each sexual assault report on its individual merits. "We take every report understanding that it's possible the report is being made to law enforcement for reasons that are not clear to us," he said.
When Muir visited in person with that woman and another who'd filed a sexual assault complaint, "we had a discussion here in my office about the fact that there is false reporting that does take place," he said. "There are studies that have shown numbers are closer to 40 to 50 percent."
Later he emailed the woman a 2009 article about those studies, two of which used polygraph tests. One of those examined 1,218 reports of rape on Air Force bases in the 1980s and subjected 546 of those making allegations in "unresolved" cases to polygraphs.
"Twenty seven percent of these complainants admitted they had fabricated their accusations just before taking the polygraph or right after they failed the test," the Forensic Examiner article said. That study combined the finding with other results to come up with a false accusation rate of 45 percent.
That's quite a bit higher than the FBI "unfounded" rate of 8 percent in the 1990s, the article noted.
Last month, the journal Violence Against Women ran a report on the same subject, titled "False Allegations of Sexual Assault: An Analysis in Ten Years of Reported Cases."
That case examined seven studies between 1977 and 2006 that found false reporting rates of 2.1 percent to 10.9 percent.
It also took sharp exception to studies that offered or actually used polygraphs on alleged rape victims, calling it "a procedure that is now widely viewed as an intimidation tactic that frequently persuades already hesitant rape victims to drop out of the criminal justice process."
"This procedure is so frowned upon that the 2005 reauthorization for the Violence Against Women Act stipulates that any state in which agencies use the polygraph on sexual assault victims jeopardizes its eligibility for certain grants, and a number of states have passed laws prohibiting the use of the polygraph to determine whether charges should be filed in a sexual assault case."
The study noted varying and confusing definitions of "false." The International Association of Chiefs of Police warned in 2005 that a "false" designation "should not be confused with an investigation that fails to prove a sexual assault occurred. In that case the investigation would be labeled ‘unsubtantiated.' "
After reviewing previous studies, the report examined 136 sexual assault cases filed over 10 years at a university in the northeastern United States, finding a 5.9 percent false report rate.
"It is notable that in general, the greater the scrutiny applied to police classifications, the lower the rate of false reporting detected," it said. "Cumulatively, these findings contradict the still widely promulgated stereotype that false rape allegations are a common occurrence."
Eilis O'Herlily, director of the Student Assault Resource Center at the University of Montana, said the research she's seen cites a "tiny, tiny fraction of false reports when compared with the number of incidents that go unreported."
That's because there are still many misconceptions about what constitutes rape, she said.
"A lot of people don't come forward because they don't know that what happens to them is rape," she said. "Maybe they knew the person. Maybe they went on a date with the person. They think people won't believe them."
Both SARC and First Step, a program for child and adult sexual assault victims, do not require victims to make police reports - or even to give their names. A state-funded program pays for both agencies to provide rape kits to victims, and then pays for storage for up to a year, which can give a victim time to decide whether to seek prosecution.