The color of lawlessness: Sexual abuse by police, nationwide
I was stopped by the police one night in January 2015 as I rode the New York City subway. I was making the long trip back downtown from Washington Heights at around 2 a.m. and had fallen asleep. Suddenly, I jolted awake to find an NYPD officer standing over me.
The officer asked me to step off the train. I asked him why. He insisted I do it.
I did as I was told and gave him some identification. We were at the 59th Street station, not far from the CBS News headquarters, where I had once worked as a broadcast journalist. Back then, officers would often smile and greet me as I walked into the building.
Nobody was smiling now.
I tried to keep the tremor out of my voice as I asked if I was being arrested. “That’s what we’re trying to figure out,” the officer mumbled as he scanned my ID.
The next few moments were tense. I thought of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice, all of whom were killed by police while unarmed. All of whom were black, like me. I finally explained to the police officer that I hadn’t complied at first because I’d felt afraid. The officer looked me in the eye.
“You mean the police don't make you feel safe?” he sneered.
A longtime problem, now long known
In November, The Associated Press published a story following a yearlong investigation that found that 1,000 officers across the country had lost their licenses over six years for sexual crimes, including rape, sodomy, possession of child pornography, and sexual misconduct.
The AP also noted that the International Association of Chiefs of Police, or IACP, had highlighted the problem of police misconduct in guidelines it published in 2011. Those guidelines, however, showed that law enforcement officials across the country had become alarmed about the rates of sex crimes within their ranks as early as 2007.
Why would such egregious misconduct among those tasked to protect and serve be overlooked for so long? The answer may have something to do with who is being victimized.
The IACP guidelines, whose publication was funded by the U.S. Department of Justice to help officers identify and prevent abuses, noted that victims of police misconduct are often among society’s most vulnerable. The guidelines list women as a majority of the victims most likely to be targeted. Minors, immigrants, the mentally ill or developmentally challenged persons, as well as individuals under the influence of drugs or alcohol were also included.
A 2006 report prepared for the United Nations Human Rights Committee by nongovernmental organizations in the United States found that racial profiling also takes gender-specific forms that often lead to sexual assault. The report noted that women of color, particularly African-American women and LGBT individuals, are routinely profiled on the streets and in their homes as sex workers, regardless of whether they are involved in the trade at all. The report also cited the routine rape and sexual abuse of Latina immigrants at border crossings.
A textbook example of law enforcement profiling victims for sexual assault is the case of Oklahoma City officer Daniel Holtzclaw.
Holtzclaw preyed on more than a dozen African-American women, most of whom lived in low-income neighborhoods. Many of them had had prior run-ins with the law, a point that was used to extort sexual favors from them. But Holtzclaw incorrectly profiled his last victim.
Jannie Ligons, a 57-year-old middle-class grandmother, had been only passing through a part of town where Holtzclaw stopped her. He demanded that she perform oral sex on him. “I was out there alone and helpless,” Ligons said later. “I didn’t know what to do, and in my mind all I could think was that he was going to shoot me, that he was going to kill me.”
Ligons, unencumbered by a criminal history or the weight of shame that comes with poverty, went straight to the police after the assault. She wasn’t the first woman to accuse Holtzclaw of sexual assault, but she was the first to be believed. Sharday Hill, one of Holtzclaw’s other victims, testified at a pretrial hearing that her fears kept her from coming forward. “I didn't think that [any]one would believe me,” she said. “I feel like all police will work together”—aka protect their own.
In December, Benjamin Crump, the lawyer who represented five of 13 women accusing Holtzclaw of sexual assault, as well as the families of slain black teenagers Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, expressed dismay at media silence surrounding the Holtzclaw case when he spoke at a press conference. “What is it about these 13 women that is so problematic or troubling?” he asked. “What is it—why are they unworthy of national media attention in such a sensational situation as a serial rapist with a badge raping a dozen of women? What is it about them? Aren’t they American citizens? Don’t they have civil rights? More importantly, don’t they have human rights?”
But he is hardly the only police officer committing such crimes.
Silence among victims
Andrea Ritchie is a police misconduct lawyer and the co-founder of Streetwise and Safe, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit organization that helps the youth in that community—many of whom are homeless or LGBT—protect themselves against police brutality and abuse. Harassment by police is something, Ritchie says, she has observed for decades, often through the window of her Brooklyn apartment. (She has since left the organization to focus on a fellowship.)
“I live on the same block as three schools,” Ritchie told me. “I see police harassing young girls every day on their way to and from the subway. I regularly do ‘Know Your Rights’ workshops where stories start to flow, as well as the strategies women use to avoid or reduce the harm of such encounters.”
“Every time I speak somewhere, at least one woman comes up to me afterward and tells me a story she’s never told anyone else about police sexual violence,” Ritchie said.
One young woman affiliated with Streetwise and Safe, a single mother named Jasmine Epps, took to the blogosphere to tell her story. In an article called “Injustice Diaries: A Young Black Woman’s Story,” Epps detailed how sexual assault and humiliation by police have always been a pervasive part of life in her neighborhood, from being frisked at the age of 8 to daily harassment now as she walks her daughter to school.
In one particularly infuriating scene, she writes, “The officer proceeded to grab my arm and ask me how old I was. When I replied 24, the officer looked slightly disappointed and said, ‘I would have taken you if you were younger.’ I was puzzled, embarrassed, and then outraged that someone would speak that way to me, especially in front of my children. I asked him where he would take me. He replied, ‘I have a few places.’”
In a study published in 2014, Bowling Green State University in Ohio found that the victims of sex-related police abuse were typically under the age of 18. The study used the Google News search engine to analyze arrest cases of nearly 400 officers employed in 43 states and Washington, D.C. The study also noted that the highest reports of police sexual misconduct occurred among officers who have zero to five years of experience.
Cases of sex-related police misconduct are likely to be unreported and therefore are difficult to document, study, or prosecute, according to the researchers. Victims of police misconduct may not alert authorities because “they feel humiliated or they fear retaliation.” Others may encounter “barriers to filing a complaint.” One such barrier is the seemingly impenetrable blue shield that often protects offenders. Even many so-called “honest cops” tend not to report or testify against their fellow officers, following what the IACP study calls “a misplaced sense of loyalty.” It’s another major hurdle cited by researchers and law officials in the quest for accountability.
Silence among police
As a Washington Post journalist recently noted, there is no central database of police misconduct in the United States. Following the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York—and the protests surrounding their deaths and those of others—President Barack Obama signed an executive order to initiate the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing in late 2014. The members of the task force were told to identify best practices in running law enforcement departments and make recommendations.
Still, the Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, which collects police data from around the country, doesn’t track officer arrests and states aren’t required to collect or share that information. Journalists at New York public radio station WNYC recently interviewed experts across the country and found that “a police officer’s disciplinary history is effectively confidential in almost half of U.S. states.” Some states, such as New York, Maryland, and California, even prohibit certain records from being made public by law. This means that police departments nationwide (roughly 12,000, according to a 2013 census by the Bureau of Justice Statistics) are mostly free to address instances of misconduct without scrutiny. In many cases, the preference has been not to address it at all.
“People think that police misconduct is rare, but if you actually stop and look at it, it’s really common,” said Jonathan Blanks, managing editor at the conservative CATO Institute’s National Police Misconduct and Reporting Project, which monitors multiple media sources to report on police misconduct. “We could discover anywhere from nine to 25 cases of misconduct in a day.”Blanks’ project reported more than 130 cases of misconduct in 2015 alone. The researchers found that for every 100,000 cases of sexual assault, 79 were committed by active police officers. The number is astounding when compared to that of civilians, at 29.
“It’s really disgusting,” Blanks says. “[Police officers] should get due process like everyone else, but it seems like they have a little stronger protection than everyone else—and that’s a problem.”
But there may be a solution pending.
A New York senator and an assemblyman are sponsoring the Police Statistics and Transparency (Police-STAT) Act, which would allow the state to document and publicly report information about policing across New York. This includes the race, ethnicity, age, and sex of people who are charged with violations and misdemeanors as well as the total number of people who die while in police custody.
A coalition of more than 65 community groups under the banner of “Communities United for Police Reform” is calling for state legislation in New York that would require greater accountability and transparency from police.
“No police department should be getting taxpayer money if it won't commit to putting an end to police rape and sexual misconduct,” Ritchie told me. She says it should be a condition of federal funding that police departments adopt and effectively enforce such a policy.
In March, I reached out to New York City Police Commissioner William J. Bratton’s office for comment about the legislation but did not receive a response.
Tacit permission to abuse
I was let go with a warning (for having my feet up on a seat) that morning on the 59th Street platform, but I have seen the inside of a squad car before. In 2008, a young police officer arrived to remove me from the cul-de-sac of a suburban neighborhood in Trenton, New Jersey.
I had just finished shooting a piece on gay adoption for CBS News and was standing at the curb waiting for my ride home. I was in my twenties—dressed professionally in trousers and black heels. I had a tripod, video camera, and CBS News credentials dangling around my neck.
The officer who arrived—a blond man, about my age—told me he’d been called about a disturbance. I instinctively turned to look at the little daisy-colored house behind me. A silhouette peered back at me from behind a white lace curtain. Apparently my crime had been standing while black. The humiliation and anger I felt then still make my cheeks burn, but what I remember most is the officer’s face when he discovered the “disturbance” that he’d been called on to handle was just a woman standing quietly on an empty street.
Although he seemed ashamed, the officer sighed and told me I wasn’t allowed to be there. I doubt he’d been on the job that long. He put me in the back of his squad car and dropped me off at a nearby gas station.
I wonder what he learned about justice that day. What did he learn about my value as a person? Did he feel, at that moment, like a protector of the law? How can he be expected to do the right thing when one of the first things he learns on the job is that right and wrong don’t really matter as much as power? And how could he eventually not grow to be more and more comfortable with disregarding other people’s rights—especially those whom society has tacitly given him permission to abuse?
I may never know. We may never know.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect the correct name and acronym of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and to reflect that Ritchie has since left the Streetwise and Safe organization.
More articles by Category: Race/Ethnicity, Violence against women
More articles by Tag: Racism, Rape, Sexualized violence, Civil rights