Late in the Netflix documentary “Victim/Suspect,” a police detective sits across from a journalist. When they meet, the Center for Investigative Reporting journalist Rachel de Leon has been her working for three years on a project about women who, having reported their sexual assaults, are then arrested, charged and in some cases sentenced for “false reporting.” It is her first solo project, and director Nancy Schwarztman (“Roll Red Roll”) hews to de Leon as guide and protagonist.
Bridgeport, Conn., Detective Walberto Cotto Jr. turns out to be the only law enforcement officer involved in such a case to agree to speak with de Leon and on camera for the documentary. He is also the only investigator who admits to employing deceptions or “ruses” (for instance, mentioning the existence of made-up video) to turn a suspect.
In 2016, Nikki Yovino, an 18-year-old student at Sacred Heart University in Bridgeport, reported that two college football players pulled her into a bathroom at an off-campus party and forced her to perform sexual acts. Det. Cotto interviewed her, which was videotaped. What follows between victim and detective is a mix of the annoying — his sympathy toward her is performative — and infuriating. At one point, he puts his hand on Yovino’s knee. He also tells her how pretty she is. It is not a come-on, but it is a troubling breach of her personal space in a particularly vulnerable moment.
What follows between Cotto and reporter de Leon is instructive. When she shares with him university documents that appear to suggest that one of the alleged assailants had been accused a month before, Yovino’s demeanor shifts from procedural bluster to fluster. Has Cotto just been caught in a lie? Or is his discomfort a sign of shoddy investigative work? Or is it merely, a reaction to not having an answer at the ready when he sat down so cocksure?
The footage of Cotto’s interrogation of Yovino is not the most egregious of the interviews that turn — subtly or not so subtly – from victim interviews into suspect interrogations. That dishonor belongs to the investigators in the Tuscaloosa County Sheriff’s Office in Alabama, which charged two young women within a two-year span with filing false reports. Emma Mannion was charged in 2016. Her case begins and ends the film. University of Alabama student Megan Rondini doesn’t appear here in person. She took her life in 2016, the year after she was charged with false reporting a sexual assault by the scion of a prominent Tuscaloosa, Ala., family. She was 21.
“Victim/Suspect” attempts to focus on the problem of police practice and not adjudicate the innocence of its subjects. It builds an important if dispiriting case for how expedient even lazy police work can be. Although the film avoids articulating the obvious, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that this seeming lack of effort or interest on the part of some officers and their superiors supports institutional biases. (Leroy Maxwell Jr., Mannion’s attorney, addresses that elephant in the room.)
When the suspect in Rondini’s case arrives with his lawyer, the police officer essentially rolls out the red carpet for the pair. The time span of their chat: 18 minutes. One interview with Rondini lasted more than two hours. For the next one, she had a victim’s advocate accompany her, though it’s impossible to tell what her role actually was. Surely a more impartial affect was warranted.
One of the nation’s hardest working law enforcement champions for victims of sexual assault does make an appearance. Olivia Benson of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” was a favorite of Dyanie Bermeo and her dad, Gabe. Before the 21-year-old was charged with filing a false report by the Washington County Sheriff’s department in Abingdon, Va., she had ambitions of becoming a police officer. Then while a student at King University in Tennessee, she was pulled over by a person appearing to be police officer and assaulted. Shortly after she reported the assault, the sheriff’s office charged her. The women in many of the cases de Leon researched at least vaguely knew their alleged assailants. Not Bermeo.
The relative youth of the film’s accusers-turned-accused is notable. “It’s not strong, confident, middle-aged women who experience being charged with false reporting,” Lisa Avalos tells Bermeo’s legal team during a pre-trial meeting de Leon sits in on. A law professor at Louisiana State University, Avalos specializes in criminal law and police procedure especially as they relate to sexual and gender-based violence.
The film addresses to a small degree the ways the media shares the blame in tarnishing these women once the police have made them suspects. It’s possible the relationship between reporters and police department media liaisons is often too cozy. Once Rondini, Bermeo and Mannion were charged, the protections they would have been afforded as assault victims vanished. Social media trolls stepped up. And newspapers, trusting perhaps in investigative thoroughness, quickly ran the women’s mugshots alongside inflammatory headlines.
Produced by Motto Pictures and the Center for Investigative Reporting Studios, “Victim/Suspect” is a recruiting film for the Fourth, and essential Estate. But the dogged pursuit of leads and interviews, the knocking on doors and figuring out ways to access information that law enforcement is unwilling to share, is the work. It’s time consuming, expensive and vital. In foregrounding the engaging de Leon, “Victim/Suspect” reads at times too much like a portrait of a journalist as a young go-getter, which may make for a compelling recruitment film but lets audiences be too lazy with its hard questions.