Is Jussie Smollett Crying Wolf?

The Psychology of Fake Crimes

Posted Feb 28, 2019

used with permission from iclipart
Source: used with permission from iclipart

There’s been a lot of buzz about the recent arrest of 36-year-old Jussie Smollett, the gay African American actor on Fox’s Empire series who has claimed that, in the early morning hours of January 29, two white men beat him up, poured bleach on him, tied a noose around his neck and shouted, “This is MAGA country,” a reference to President Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan.

An entirely different story emerged on February 21st.  According to Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson, Smollett first sent a threatening letter to himself at the film studio on January 22nd.  When that didn’t get the attention he wanted, he hired two Nigerian brothers to stage the attack. 

While Mr. Smollett continues to deny this, Chicago police claim the brothers have provided considerable evidence, they have phone records showing communication between the parties before and after the staged attack as well as a copy of the actual check Smollett paid the brothers. Now the actor stands accused of staging a fake hate crime and has been charged with a felony, while the people who initially supported him are dumbfounded and devastated.  We don't know what truth will eventually emerge, i.e., whether Mr. Smollett will eventually be vindicated or vilified, but we do know that reports of false crimes have happened and that they are rare.

False Hate Crimes:  What are the Odds?

According to the latest FBI data, there were 7,175 reported hate crimes reported in 2017, up from 6/121 in 2016.  But an increase in reported crimes doesn’t mean an increase in reported claims.  While there is no official recordkeeper of hoaxes, the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University San Bernardino’s May 2018 report cited only 17 false hate crime reports in 2017; in 6 others, it was unclear whether they were true or false.  So, a little over 1 in 500 reported crimes were dubious.

What’s the Motive Behind a False Crime Report?

Reporting a crime that never happened appears to be relatively rare across the board, no matter what the accusation.  People who do tend to have one or more of the following motives:

1.     Attention/sympathy:  There are some forms of psychological disturbances that may make it more likely that someone would make a false allegation to get attention or sympathy.   Many of us have heard of factitious disorder, where a person pretends to be sick or ill in order to get attention from nurses or doctors.  A rare subset of factitious disorder is known as factitious victimization when the person gets a psychological payoff for being the victim.

Another example would be someone who is overwhelmed by life events and lacks the motivation and energy to deal directly with the problem.  Instead of seeking appropriate assistance from friends, family or significant others, she develops a self-victimization plan that provides temporary relief through the attention and support from others.   

2.     Financial/profit:  People who claim they’ve been robbed or vandalized often have financial or profit motives.  For instance, think of the person who burns down her business and claims it was arson or a person who takes out $70,000 in loans and then claims someone else had taken out the loans using his information.

3.     Alibi: Teenagers are often the culprits behind false crime reports that are motivated by a need for an alibi.  In 1987, teenager Tawana Brawley staged a hate crime because she didn’t want to be beaten by her mother's boyfriend for staying out late and not coming home for days; in 2016, 18-year- old Yasmin Seweid told NYPD that she was the victim of an anti-Islamic assault on the subway, later admitting that she made up the story to cover for a night of drinking with friends.

4.     Revenge:  In December 2018, Mitchell Dutz reported that his 1-year-old son, Bentley, had been kidnapped after three suspects stole a car in which he was in the back seat.  After concerned police sent out an Amber Alert, it was discovered that the alleged victim had lied about the stolen car and the missing child.  Instead, he was trying to get revenge on some guys who had robbed him during a drug deal.

Small Numbers, Huge Impact

Whatever the exact motive, most false crime reporters have come to believe that being labeled a “crime victim” would benefit them in some way; it rarely does. Even worse is the impact it has on others. Anyone who has worked with hate crime victims knows how hard it is for them to come forward, to speak up, to testify against their abusers.  They don’t think they will be believed.  They worry that they will be targeted for even worse violence. 

A false hate crime report makes a difficult situation even worse; it increases skepticism toward people reporting hate crimes.  As football player Wes Fesler once said about the boy who cried wolf, “Crying wolf may have been the boy’s undoing, but the true irony was that the wolves were always lurking nearby.”