Almost Every Other Day, a Police Officer Loses Their Badge for Engaging in Sexual Misconduct

Photo by Diana Robinson, Creative Commons. 

Update, 1/21/16: Former police officer Daniel Holtzclaw has been found guilty on eight counts of rape. The court found that he committed those crimes over the course of six months in 2013 and 2014. He was sentenced today to 263 years in prison. 

No official organization keeps track of how many police officers commit sexual assault on the job. So the Associated Press spent a year collecting their own numbers. Their just-published investigation into sexual misconduct by U.S. law enforcement found that, during a six-year period, roughly 1,000 officers lost their badges for rape, sodomy, misconduct such as propositioning people or having consensual sex while on duty, and sex crimes such as possession of child pornography. That means a police officer loses their badge for sexual misconduct nearly every other day. It’s a horrifying read, detailing specific instances in which law enforcement used their authority to sexually assault people—and then keep them quiet.

What should also frighten every person is what the AP concluded about their findings:

The number is unquestionably an undercount because it represents only those officers whose licenses to work in law enforcement were revoked, and not all states take such action. California and New York — with several of the nation's largest law enforcement agencies — offered no records because they have no statewide system to decertify officers for misconduct. And even among states that provided records, some reported no officers removed for sexual misdeeds even though cases were identified via news stories or court records.

“It's happening probably in every law enforcement agency across the country,” said Chief Bernadette DiPino of the Sarasota Police Department in Florida, who helped study the problem for the International Association of Chiefs of Police. “It's so underreported and people are scared that if they call and complain about a police officer, they think every other police officer is going to be then out to get them.”

In other words, we know about these 1,000 officers only because they lost their badges. In many instances, they were punished because one of the people they abused had the courage to file complains despite the very real threat of repercussions. Then, someone in a position of authority took their accusations seriously enough to investigate. What about all the people who felt they couldn't risk speaking up about a police officer? 

The AP story starts with the horrifying story of J.L., a daycare worker in her fifties who was driving home in June 2014, when she says Officer Daniel Holtzclaw pulled her over and sexually assaulted her. J.L. immediately reported the assault and a captain made a report. The next afternoon, the officer was arrested. But J.L.’s accusations made investigators curious about another report five weeks earlier in which an unidentified officer had been accused of coercing a woman into oral sex. Police detectives reviewed the names of women in Holtzclaw's official log and interviewed each one about whether he had assaulted them. 

Eventually, a dozen more women, including one who was 17 at the time, said that they were assaulted by the same officer, 28-year-old Holtzclaw. He was fired, then arrested. The former officer now faces 36 charges, including rape, sexual battery and forcible oral sodomy. Each of the thirteen women will testify at his trial, which began this Monday. Prosecutors say Holtzclaw specifically targeted Black women in a low-income neighborhood because he believed they would be too afraid to file a complaint. Of course, there could also be even more women who Holtzclaw came into contact but never recorded pulling them over. 

Daniel Holtzclaw's mugshot, after his arrest on 36 charges.

The problem of law enforcement committing sexual violence isn’t limited to Oklahoma City. The AP report also gave a snapshot of several officers in other states who not only lost their badges, but were arrested and sentenced to prison for sexual violence. In Connecticut, William Ruscoe of the Trumbull police began a two-year prison term in January after he pled guilty for sexually assaulting a 17-year-old girl that he met through a program for teens interested in law enforcement.  In Florida, Jonathan Bleiwess used the threat of deportation to bully 20 immigrant men into sex. His victims were too afraid to testify; Bleiwess pled guilty to false imprisonment charges and was sentenced to five years in prison. In New Mexico, Michael Garcia, who was in a unit investigating child abuse and sex crimes, was sentenced to nine years in prison for assaulting a high school police intern.

Who knows how many other complaints were routinely dismissed because the person complaining was poor, struggling with addiction, or were somehow not seen as a credible victim? In May 2015, two women filed suit accusing eight guards at Rikers Island, New York City’s island-jail complex, of repeated sexual assault. Sadly, what the two women experienced was not an anomaly. Another woman, who is not part of the suit, came forward today to talk about the rampant sexual misconduct of staff on the island—and the staggering statistic that 98 percent of all sexual abuse complaints are never passed along to law enforcement. A Bureau of Justice report found that 34,100 people in state prisons and 13,200 people in local jails reported being victims of staff sexual misconduct between 2011 and 2012. And those were only the people who were willing to risk staff ire and retaliation by reporting their experiences.

A 2011 report on sexual misconduct by the International Association of Chiefs of Police said as much, noting that officers’ interactions with people who are perceived as less credible protects assailants from such charges. Combined with what’s frequently known as the Blue Wall of Silence—in which colleagues shield their fellow officers from allegations of wrongdoing—the only wonder is that 1,000 officers lost their badges at all.   

Many of the women accusing Holtzclaw have struggled with addiction, engaged in sex work, and/or had been arrested before. All are Black women. These aspects of their lives will make it easier for an attorney to discredit them.

We’ve also seen the same inclination to reject rape survivors’ accusations even when the person accused doesn’t have a badge because the survivor didn’t fit the ideal of a “perfect victim” or because the person accused didn’t fit the profile of what we think of when we think of sexual assault (Steubenville or Bill Cosby, anyone?).

The movements around #BlackLivesMatter and #SayHerName have done a tremendous job bringing—and keeping—attention on police violence. AP’s findings aren’t new to women, particularly women of color who have experienced and organized against police violence. INCITE! Women, Gender Non-Conforming and Trans people of Color Against Violence has long decried the physical and sexual violence in law enforcement. So have other grassroots groups. As a mainstream media outlet, the AP report adds to—and hopefully amplifies—that message to draw attention to this terrifying reality. The next question should be: What can be done about it? 

Related Reading: Will Filming the Police Keep Us Safe? 

by Victoria Law
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Victoria Law is a voracious reader and freelance writer who frequently writes about gender, incarceration and resistance. She is also the author of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women

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