Police sexual abuse isn’t just the case of a few ‘bad apples’ — it’s systemic

Police target the most marginalized people, at their most vulnerable times.

Getty Images / Edit by Diana Ofosu
Getty Images / Edit by Diana Ofosu

Over the last few months, as there are more and more reports of sexual harassment and abuse by men in power, we hear the refrain: Believe women.

If we are to believe women, we also must broaden our focus to those who are marginalized — those who are specifically targeted because people won’t believe them. When Roy Moore was district attorney, he reportedly took advantage of his power in law enforcement and targeted people for that very reason.

“He told me, he said, ‘You’re just a child,’ and he said, ‘I am the district attorney of Etowah County and if you tell anyone about this no one will ever believe you,’” Beverly Nelson told the Washington Post about the night Moore, now a Senate candidate in Alabama, allegedly sexually assaulted her.

It’s not just Moore. There is a systemic problem in our criminal justice system of men who are supposed to uphold the law, and there have been a multitude of cases of police officers who target marginalized women for sexual violence precisely for that reason.

According to Andrea Ritchie, author of Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color, police frequently target marginalized people with sexual violence. That includes young women and girls, women of color, transgender women, sex workers, homeless women, women with mental illness, undocumented women, women who are addicted to drugs and alcohol, women with disabilities, and low-income women. Because the perpetrators are so powerful and because the victims are so marginalized, the problem of police violence often feels intractable, experts say.

But the first step toward dealing with this problem is to acknowledge that it is far more pervasive than people would like to think.

A well-established pattern of police sexual misconduct  

Moore’s case has gotten a lot of media attention because of his status and because of his bid for a Senate seat. But the problem with police and sexual violence is widespread.

In October, two New York Police Department detectives were for arrested for rape and pleaded not guilty. A teenager, who goes by the name Anna Chambers on social media, said she was pulled over with two male friends, handcuffed by the officers, and placed in an unmarked police van, where she said one officer raped her and both forced their penises in her mouth. The officers claimed it was all consensual sex — even though she said she was in handcuffs the whole time.

This fall, a Lincoln, Nebraska police officer resigned and was later arrested following an investigation into an alleged sexual assault. Last week, a former Northern California police officer was charged with statutory rape after he said he had sex with a 17 year-old he met through the Explorer program, a career program for high school students. That same week, a peace officer for the New York City Department of Social Services was indicted on charges that he sexually assaulted a woman he detained.

Her intoxicated state … a key reason why the officers allegedly targeted her, was an opening for the defense to poke at her credibility.

Despite the fact that some officers get indicted or are even found guilty of these crimes, it is unlikely that most police officers will face major consequences for their actions, experts on police sexual violence told ThinkProgress. Rape survivors face an uphill battle in holding their rapists accountable in criminal court. What’s more, police are considered far more credible than victims merely because of their status. In 2011, a woman said officers were called to help her because she was very intoxicated, but instead, one officer raped her while another kept watch. They were later acquitted. Her intoxicated state, which was likely a key reason why the officers allegedly targeted her, was an opening for the defense to poke at her credibility.

The huge amounts of discretion given to patrol officers on whom to frisk, whom to question, and whom to ticket, enable police to prey on women — and it is mostly patrol officers perpetrating these crimes. The expanded police presence in schools, for instance, allows officers to use their authority to abuse searches, harass girls in the hallways, and even sexually assault them.

There are no official statistics on the number of rapes and sexual assaults committed by police officers in the United States, and data gathered by federal and state governments on excessive force don’t include sexual violence. But over the years, researchers and journalists have found disturbing patterns in police sexual misconduct and the victims targeted.

In 2002, Samuel Walker and Dawn Irlbeck conducted a study that found that 40 percent of police sexual misconduct cases involved teenagers and 34 percent happened during a traffic stop. A 2003 follow-up found other ways officers exploit young women, like through Police Explorer programs that allow young people to consider a role in law enforcement. The study also highlights cases in which police would sexually assault female high school interns in ride-alongs. Victims of sex-related police crime are typically younger than 18 years old.

A 2015 Associated Press investigation obtained records from 41 states on police decertification for sexual misconduct from 2009 to 2014, and found that 550 officers were decertified for sexual assault and 440 officers were decertified for other types of sexual offenses, including inappropriate communication with juveniles and possessing child pornography.

A 2015 Buffalo News investigation looked at 700 credible cases throughout the country over the past 10 years and found that, over this period, a case of sexual misconduct by a police officer cropped up every five days. And according to a 2013 study, 41 percent of police sexual violence cases were committed by repeat-offending officers. Researchers said some officers move across jurisdictions and keep their certificate despite their history of sexual violence, in what is known as the “officer shuffle.”

“When a police officer is found to have raped someone, we tend to think it happened on a case-by-case basis and we express shock and outrage, but we don’t see it as part of a larger systemic problem that is part of a continuum of sexual violence,” Ritchie told ThinkProgress.

“The main context in which sexual violence takes place happens in traffic stops and the presence of police officers in schools also facilitates a great deal of sexual violence,” Ritchie said. “Policing of drugs and prostitution and also broken windows policing [facilitates sexual violence] because it gives officers so many points of entry in harassment of women.”

“When there is a prostitution charge, that is something that could result in loss of public housing or being barred from certain kinds of employment or losing your children and even more so when it comes to drug charges, especially those that carry mandatory minimums,” Ritchie added.

Jacqueline Robarge, founder of Power Inside, a human rights and harm reduction organization that serves survivors of gender-based violence, has worked with individuals who have been sexually assaulted and harassed by police officers. Robarge helps them recover from trauma and record their stories. Robarge told ThinkProgress about cases of police raping teenage sex workers, of officers asking a woman to dance for them, and of a cop who returned to an abandoned house where a woman was living to repeatedly assault her. The increasing criminalization of homelessness, the war on drugs, and the police approach on sex work fosters an environment of sexual violence.

“We had a repeat officer who was targeting a woman who was living in an abandoned house. She was quite young and she was afraid to be arrested for fourth degree burglary, because they arrest people sleeping in abandoned houses,” Robarge said. “So he would repeatedly break into this boarded-up abandoned house and abuse her. She was terrified and she had to leave that little semblance of safety that she had cobbled together.”

The woman told Robarge that the cops would say things like “Nobody is going to believe you” and “What are you going to do?”

Officers often enforce gender norms through sexual violence, such as violence against trans women, women who are out “too late,” and queer women and nonbinary people. But on top of targeting those who belong to marginalized groups, police also target women based on court dates and whether or not they are on probation. Daniel Holtzclaw, an Oklahoma City police officer who targeted 13 black women with sexual harassment and violence, employed similar tactics by using outstanding warrants and previous arrests to coerce women. Roger Magana, an officer in Eugene, Oregon who assaulted women over several years, often used the pretext of welfare checks to make visits to women’s homes.

“They use the fact that they can tell who is on probation. If you’re doing a great job on probation, they can see that in the system. They look you up and then they have that power over you as well, and that is very very dangerous,” Robarge said.

Some abusive police officers are so aware of their targets that even when a woman leaves the area for a period of time and returns, officers immediately begin tracking her again, Robarge added.

Why reform is challenging

There are major barriers to starting a national conversation on police sexual violence, let alone addressing a policy change in police departments.

Media reports often tell the stories of police sexual violence as if they are an aberration, Ritchie and Robarge both said, and activist groups don’t always include sexual violence in the larger conversation about police violence, which usually focus on violence against black men. But most of all, Robarge said, no one wants to believe that the people in charge of catching and arresting rapists are rapists themselves.

“He would repeatedly break into this boarded-up abandoned house and abuse her.”

“There is not enough acknowledgement, even with some major cases like Holtzclaw or various officers getting charged all around the country,” Robarge said. “There is still this denial, this cognitive dissonance that our culture has around rape, and they cannot believe a police officer would do something as violent as coercing sex or as assaulting a woman or saying extremely humiliating things just because they can.”

Ritchie said media coverage and activism focusing on police violence often leaves sexual violence out of the discussion. For example, stop and frisk — which allows police to profile people by race, ethnicity, and presumed religion — is called “stop and grope” by young women who have been targeted.

“It isn’t part of the regular conversation,” Ritchie said. “If we’re having a piece about stop and frisk, does that involve the risk of sexual violence? If we’re doing a piece on the war on drugs and policing, are we talking about how it affects sexual violence?”

A culture of police impunity, the fact that there are few women in leadership positions, and the common dismissal of sexual assault as a serious issue are all making it harder to seriously address.

This mentality that the only thing keeping civilization going is the police feeds into a culture of impunity,” Alex Vitale, author of The End of Policing, said. “All this police bill of rights stuff is about providing more insulation and less accountability of police. What we need to do is more transparency and oversight and accountability when police unions and a lot of rank-and-file cops are in fact actively pursuing a strategy to further insulate themselves.”

Ritchie researched 36 police departments’ policies on sexual misconduct and found that “more than half had no policy explicitly prohibiting police sexual misconduct against members of the public.” Some departments, like Louisville, Kentucky, even provided an exception to the prohibition of on-duty sexual contact “presumably in the enforcement of sexual offenses,” because officers may be able to claim that they participated in sexual activity to catch sex workers as part of a prostitution sting. But Ritchie said it’s not necessary to engage in sex for an officer to prove the offense. She added that people who have challenged the constitutionality of this behavior have lost in the courts so far, however. 

No one wants to believe that the people in charge of catching and arresting rapists are rapists themselves.

Vitale said that although he does not oppose additional training and better policies to address sexual violence, he is skeptical of how much a practice like improved training will help. “It’s not like these officers don’t know that what they’re doing is inappropriate. I think the issue is much more about accountability and reducing the police role that puts them in contact with these populations so much.”

Ritchie said the focus needs to be on changing policies within police departments rather than changing the law. “It’s mostly a gap in prevention and accountability and that’s where we need to focus our attention,” she said. “The law deals with the situation after the fact and then we’re defending on a system where rape victims don’t fare well no matter who their rapists are and it’s certainly a much steeper hill to climb if your rapist is a police officer.”

Meanwhile, police officials who make misogynist and racist statements, as well as statements dismissive of rape, are often promoted. New York Police Captain Peter Rose apologized in January after he dismissed many sexual assaults as not “true stranger rapes.” Rose had said, “Some of them were Tinder, some of them were hookup sites, some of them were actually coworkers. It’s not a trend that we’re too worried about …” In November, The Daily News reported Rose will be promoted to deputy inspector. Similarly, Javier Ortiz, the head of Miami’s police union, was promoted from lieutenant to captain in October despite a history of making racist statements and harassing two women of color who tried to hold police accountable for actions such as speeding and beating a man in handcuffs. 

Police unions have often opposed civilian oversight, Vitale and Ritchie said. In 2016, for example, Illinois state representative Litesa Wallace (D) introduced a bill that would allow an independent agency to have jurisdiction over sexual assault cases involving police officers. But The Fraternal Order of Police opposed the bill, a move that led to amendments that exclude Chicago Police Department and Illinois State Police from the independent investigation requirement.

Robarge has been closely watching the aftermath of a Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation last year that uncovered a number of abuses in the Baltimore Police Department (BPD).The investigation discovered that the BPD “seriously and systematically under-investigates” sexual assault reports and that police were coercing women, especially sex workers, into sex to avoid arrest. In one sexual assault complaint the DOJ said was mishandled, a prosecutor called the alleged rape survivor a “conniving little whore” and an officer responded, “Lmao! I feel the same.” It also included findings on police sexual violence, like one cop who was repeatedly having sex in his car, according to multiple anonymous tips.

“I want to have faith in reform. At the same time, I am working with women whose lived reality is it will never change,” Robarge said. “… I’ve spoken to retired police officers, and I said it feels like an intractable problem that won’t go away. He was like, ‘It needs to be an entire culture shift.'”

Although the DOJ has made a number of requests in its consent decree — including making it easier for people to make complaints, addressing conflicts of interest in the Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR), asking that OPR have sufficient resources and staff, and including instructions for a supervisory review of stops and arrests — Robarge isn’t sure it is enough.

“If I were a police officer who had a very chronic problem with sexual abuse and abuse of power in this way and I read the findings and consent decree, would that really make me feel nervous about continuing to do it? I kind of don’t know, I might read it and think no big deal, I’ll get training,” she said.

“The reporting mechanisms don’t really take into account the sexual nature of what is happening,” she added. “If they beef up the civilian review board and the reporting structures and internal review, it is going to be hard to know for sure, that after all of the historic abuse, that women will even trust in reforms.”