Erosion of Trust: Police Sexual Misconduct
This week marked the beginning of Derek Chauvin’s trial. The prosecution will argue that Chauvin used excessive force to murder George Floyd. In a vigil prior to the first night of the trial Attorney Benjamin Crump declared, “While Chauvin is in court, America is on trial”. Some of the big questions of this case revolve around race, power, and authority. Do the police have too much power? Because of this has public trust in law enforcement eroded?
If it hasn’t, it should. The time has long since passed for Americans to be ignorant of police misconduct.
The state of affairs
On March 26th, 2021 Rhode Island State Legislative introduced Bill SO 249. 249 would create the “criteria for the criminal offense of sexual assault when the victim is in the custody of a peace officer” (“Rhode Island S0249”).
This begs the question, how often are these so-called peace officers sexually assaulting those in custody?
Currently, if a person is detained by the police and the officer claims there was consent, any sexual activity that follows is likely to be seen as inculpable. The acts of sodomy, fondling, touching, or rape that takes place in these settings are to see in the officer’s eyes and the victim will be disregarded. The implicit power dynamics between these two players create a situation that seems to be out of a philosophical thought experiment: is rape still rape if the survivor is widely perceived to be unreliable and the rapist is meant to be a community hero?
The answer is yes. It will always be yes.
It is impossible in these situations for there to be any consent. The survivors in these cases are literally held without the power to leave after all they are detained. Yet, in 34 states there are not any laws to protect detainees from acts of atrocity on their autonomy (Rodriguez).
This is not to say rape is not occurring. If rape occurs and can be charged as so (if the stars align because many cases of sexual assault are never tried) then an officer might be charged. That is if the survivor can prove there was no consent. In this exact scenario, we need to delve deeper into the complexities of the issues with Bill 249. When a detective withholds a person the expectation is the agent has reasonable evidence to prove the detainee could be a criminal. The acts that happen behind closed doors will then be seen through the eyes of the cop. If two people exit a room and one is wearing a badge and the other is assumed to be connected to a crime, who do you think a jury would believe?
Following the numbers
How big of a concern is this? The astonishing answer is we have no idea. “Data on sexual assaults by police are almost nonexistent” according to researcher Philip Stinson of Bowling Green University. When his team decided to investigate officer misconduct, the research team used Google alerts on 48 search terms, then followed each case to conclude if sexual misconduct occurred. What they found was 405 cases for forcible rape, 219 cases of forcible sodomy, and 636 cases of forcible fondling in seven years (Stinson et al.).
In a similar time frame, the Associated Press found that about 1,000 detectives “lost their badges in six years for rape, sodomy, and other sexual assault; sex crimes that included possession of child pornography; sexual misconduct such as propositioning citizens or having consensual but prohibited on-duty intercourse”(Sedensky and Merchant).
1,000 officers lost their badges due to sexual misconduct
Lastly, a database created by The Buffalo News found that “a law enforcement official was caught in a case of sexual abuse or misconduct at least every five days” (Rodriguez).
These numbers are without a doubt underrepresented because only cases where law enforcement officers’ licenses were revoked could be recorded. All the researchers involved in the Bowling Green University study expect actual counts to be much higher. Additionally, nine states do not have systems to decertify law enforcement. Some departments force survivors to sign non-disclosure agreements, avoiding the legal hassle of a courtroom case erasing these cases from our history. Another barrier before reporting is the discomfort of reporting to another detective the details of their crime. Those who do report can be talked out of it (or intimidated against speaking out). This is not an unfounded fear. Stinson found that police are capable of “specifically targeting victims whose calculated risk is based on their vulnerability, the likelihood that they wouldn’t believe if they did come forward” (Rodriguez).
For these cases to see the light of day, the survivor must confront the peers of their attacker who embody their victims. Andrea Ritchie a researcher at Barnard Center for Research on Women explains it succinctly, “survivors of sexual assault by police are the only survivors of sexual assault who have to report the assault to the people that committed it.” How can we expect any culpability when survivors are forced to confront their trauma in such quick succession after the crime?
This means that cops are aware of the hierarchy and will use it to their advantage to hand-select victims.
“A predominance of victims falls into at least one of several categories: they have criminal records, are homeless, are sex workers, have issues with drug or alcohol abuse” (McLaughlin).
These are people who are disenfranchised and assumed to be unbelievable by traditional metrics. The law enforcement are then the predators committing the perfect crime because no jury expects them to be lying. Why aren’t we more horrified that the villains in our storybooks are the ones in our cop cruisers today? We have a population trained to the intricacies of courtrooms, convictions, and juries work and they use this information to victimize disadvantaged populations.
If someone is capable of addressing their trauma they are rarely met with empathetic ears. “Officers have been known to actively pursue a victim’s silence through direct threats and intimidation” according to Ritchie’s. If intimidation isn’t successful then the “blue wall of invisibility” will protect the accused. The “Blue Wall” is a policy where chiefs often corroborate other officer’s stories. They “view misconduct as part of the culture” of the career (Rodriguez). The wall creates a toxic work environment, workplace misconduct is seen as a test of loyalty to peers rather than a commitment to the community.
The Washington Post described a case in Chicago with teenager Tiawanda Moore that eloquently describes these barriers. Moore tried to report her sexual assault by a Chicago police officer and she was “ ‘given the run around” by internal affairs officers who intimidated and discouraged her from making a report… when she used her phone to record their attempts at dissuasion she was charged with two counts of eavesdropping” (Rodriguez). This is not the only instance where the survivor ended up being found guilty in their attempts at restitution. Another woman in Milwaukee was raped by a detective in 2020. While screaming for help she was accused of assaulting an officer and proceeded to be jailed for four days. It wasn’t until a federal investigation that her attacker was tried and convicted (Sedensky and Merchant).
Who are we protecting?
Society ought to ask how a system designed to protect us can fail so horrifically? In 2007, “70 police chiefs gathered in an annual meeting and nearly every attendee raised their hand when asked if they had dealt with an officer accused of sexual misdeeds” (Sedensky and Merchant). That is a minimum of 70 cases of sexual misconduct, assuming that each chief only had dealt with one case of misconduct. How many of those cases did survivors see justice? Any? How many of those traumatized survivors have lost faith in the system? How many people have to bear this burden before we decide to take action?
The fact that we, Americans, have to create laws explicitly prohibiting our officers from sexually assaulting those they are meant to serve is a gross example of the unfettered power we invest in them. In a day and age where divesting the police has become a popular slogan, it is time to reevaluate the power injustices in our society.
A few professionals have weighed in on sexual misconduct known as PSM (Police Sexual Misconduct) suggesting improvements to police culture. Chief Norm Stamper of Seattle Police says there should be:
- An online or anonymous reporting and special officers trained in dealing with sexual assault victims
- GPS Tracking of officers
- Rules forbidding departments from hiring previously fired officers
- Mandates about body and dash cams
Another resolution employed by various departments including Madison Police Department, Louisiana State Police, and Philadelphia police, is to hire more females in the force to create a critical mass. The critical mass theory says, “you have to get a certain percentage of any minority group into a majority group before they can make changes”. But why is it a woman’s job to dictate her male peers’ behavior? For a critical mass theory to work there needs to be a minimum of 30% female police in a department (Rodriguez). In the time before the quota is reached female officers are more likely to be sexually assaulted and harassed and uncomfortable in their workplace. It appears that this “solution” only benefits those who already have power: male police officers who are prone to misconduct. After all, why does one gender have to suffer for the benefit of another’s crimes?
Tom Tremblay a retired chief from Burlington, Vermont a national and international advisor and trainer specializing in the prevention of sexual assault and related violence for police prosecutors, advocates, higher education, and the military said. “We have to recognize that while the conditions of the job can be concerning these are the choices that offenders make, offenders choose to abuse or take advantage of someone they see as less powerful. We don’t want to lose sight of that” (Rodriguez).
Moving beyond babysitting
The solutions thus far fail to address the real problem here. Why do we want to further monitor and babysit deputies rather than prevent the over-militarized over-aggressive community that exists in every neighborhood in America? Can’t we be proactive? Shouldn’t we want to have officers with more extensive training, more interdisciplinary efforts? I’m glad all officers are required to do push-ups in their academy but do they know the difference between a psychotic break and a drunk? Are they capable of de-escalating a situation with their voices rather than their guns? Do they know their penises belong in their pants and not their detainees’ bodies? Have they forgotten how to keep their hands to themselves?
Perhaps the solution is to create extensive training in the academies and continual reevaluation during time serving in the force. There needs to be more accountability, but that requires more knowledgeable supervisors, fewer opportunities for staff to fall through the cracks, stricter policies on police, and more knowledge on interpersonal skills among various populations.
Walden University of College of Social and Behavioral Sciences examined “the effects of frequent exposure to violence and trauma on police officers found that the constant exposure to these elements can result in hyper-aggressive behavior, impulsivity, and overconfidence” (Rodriguez). What are we doing to study the emotional intelligence of those in the force? There is an opportunity here to address toxic masculinity and create more humane officers. We need people who are capable of understanding the impacts of mental illness both with the populations they are serving and themselves. Our work impacts us, it impacts our perceptions of the world. We need to adjust the antiquated practices of ignoring the impacts of continual trauma both for the deputies and the communities they are oftening targeting. We need law enforcement to be working alongside community professionals, therapists, and counselors. We need a dynamic team of people to lift the people in American communities and not hold them down.
For now, some states have made changes to their legislation around sexual conduct in custody including:
- Illinois passed a law in 2018 number 559
- Maryland passed a Bill 1292
- New York passed S7708
Colorado, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Texas and of course Rhode Island have bills that are currently sitting in legislation.The United States Senate has a bill in committee right now about this, it was announced in March 2019, but it is likely to die in committee.
The proposed solutions look at ways to monitor the toxic police culture and fail to look at wider issues of why toxic police culture exists. A law such as Rhode Island Bill 249 is necessary as a stepping stone into a greater systematic change of power. Until we change this culture, the bad apples that we hear about in every police-sponsored press conference will continue to rot through our society, poisoning us all.
McLaughlin, Eliot. “Police Officers in the US Were Charged with More than 400 Rapes over a 9-Year Period.” CNN, 19 Oct. 2018, https://www.cnn.com/2018/10/19/us/police-sexual-assaults-maryland-scope/index.html.
“Rhode Island S0249 | 2021 | Regular Session.” LegiScan, https://legiscan.com/RI/bill/S0249/2021. Accessed 31 Mar. 2021.
Rodriguez, Isidoro, and Nancy Bilyeau. “Predators Behind the Badge: Confronting Police Sexual Misconduct.” The Crime Report, The Crime Report , 2 May 2020, thecrimereport.org/2020/03/12/predators-behind-the-badge-confronting-hidden-police-sexual-misconduct/.
Sedensky, Matt, and Norman Merchant. AP Special Report: Hundreds of Officers Lose Licenses over Sex Misconduct — News — Holland Sentinel — Holland, MI. https://www.hollandsentinel.com/article/20151101/NEWS/151109965. Accessed 31 Mar. 2021.
Stinson, Philip M., et al. Police Sexual Misconduct: A National Scale Study of Arrested Officers. p. 46.