The recent murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, among others, have incited a movement that has the world talking about racism at a scale unlike ever before. This movement is not by any means the first time Black Americans have spoken out about the racially charged violence they experience; they’ve been fighting for their rights for centuries. This particular movement, powered and sustained by social media, has become a long-overdue awakening for white people, many of whom are just now deeply understanding the injustices that Black people face in this country and others. As much of the world’s focus has shifted to center the voices of Black people, the last few weeks have been a profound learning experience for many of us. We have viewed in plain-sight how racism manifests in police brutality. Further, a global pandemic that disproportionately affects and kills Black Americans has magnified the systemic inequalities that persist in this country (Kaur, 2020).
We, at Honey, have more thoroughly explored how racism affects the safety of Black women, their increased likelihood of being sexually assaulted, and the specific injustices Black survivors face. Evidence that should have always been at the forefront of policy decisions, mainstream media, and dinner table conversation is now, finally, granted the attention it deserves. Although the media has highlighted incidents of police brutality, namely against Black men, stories of police violence against women of color have remained subdued. However, a horrifying string of evidence exists of a pattern of police sexual misconduct, from sexual harassment to extortion to rape, against Black women especially (Ritchie, 2018).
Andrea J. Ritchie is a police misconduct attorney and the author of Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color. She has meticulously researched and brought attention to the violent encounters between police and citizens from the perspective of Black women, women of color, transgender women, and others. Ritchie's research has affirmed that in order to fully understand the root of the problem and develop appropriate solutions to police and state violence against Black people in this country, we must concentrate on the experiences of Black women (Corley, 2017).
Although certain experiences are similar for Black men and women, like police shootings and police profiling, others are disproportionately experienced by Black women and other women of color, such as police sexual violence (Corley 2017) which is the second most frequently reported form of police misconduct after excessive force (Ritchie, 2018). A surprising statistic uncovered by Buffalo News found that a police officer is caught in an act of sexual misconduct every five days. Former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper described horrifying events in his book, Breaking Rank, in which cops fondled prisoners, made false traffic stops of attractive women, traded sexual favors for freedom, had sex with teenagers, and raped children (Ritchie, 2018). He revealed that "sexual predation by police officers happens far more often than people in the business are willing to admit” (Ritchie, 2018).
How could it be that the people responsible for our protection are prone to this sort of violence? Well, if we’ve learned anything from the last few weeks it’s that, systemically, the police force is structured in a way that supports and conceals harmful behavior. Police often operate alone and free from direct supervision. By nature of the job, they interact with vulnerable citizens; victims, criminal suspects, and others who are subject to the power and coercive authority granted to the police (Ritchie, 2018). Police-citizen interactions often occur late at night when there is low public visibility and ample opportunity for an officer who is able and inclined to take advantage of someone (Ritchie, 2018).
How does this issue disproportionately affect Black women, trans women, and other women of color? Research shows that police officers target those who are most vulnerable. Given that law enforcement is a male-dominated industry and that police officers are entrusted with a great deal of power, women are already in a vulnerable position against predatorial officers. Further, predatorial officers target young women, domestic violence survivors who call on police for protection, and women who they don't think will be believed if they come forward, such as women of color, transgender women, women who use drugs or alcohol, and women involved in the sex trade (Ritchie, 2018).
A survey conducted in 2000 of nearly 1,000 New York City youth found that 2 in 5 young women — almost half of whom were Black, Latina, or Asian — reported sexual harassment by an officer (Ritchie, 2018). An officer quoted in an investigative report by the Philadelphia Inquirer said, "I would see women that were vulnerable where I could appear as a knight in shining armor." He explained, "I'm going to help this woman who's being abused by her boyfriend, and then I'll ask for sexual favors" (Ritchie, 2018). A 2016 Justice Department investigation of the Baltimore Police Department found that officers extorted sex from women under the threat of prostitution charges (Ritchie 2018). The aforementioned reports are among the few examples of police sexual assault in which officers are merely investigated, let alone charged or dismissed.
A study examining newspaper accounts in the Midwest found that in 41 percent of cases, officers charged with sexual violence had been accused of sexual misconduct at least once before — between 2 and 21 prior allegations — but had remained on the force (Ritchie, 2018). If an officer is charged, oftentimes they are redirected to an administrative position or another department, or they are acquitted altogether because the survivor is not believed (Corley, 2017). Additionally, many police officers benefit from Qualified Immunity.
Qualified Immunity is a type of immunity designed to protect certain officials from civil litigation in their personal capacity (American Law Reports 1983). This means that an officer may not be liable for the wrongdoing. Police officers are entitled to qualified immunity in a civil suit when their actions do not violate a “clearly established statutory or constitutional right” (American Law Reports, 1983). Their actions are judged by something called the “objective reasonableness test.” If the officer's actions pass this test, they may be titled to immunity. This immunity, however, protects the officer in an individual capacity and not the governmental entity who employs the office.
The Objective Reasonableness Test looks at the officer's actions from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the vision of 20/20 hindsight. If the officer’s actions fail this test, or the officer violated a clearly established law, he will not be granted immunity (American law Reports, 1983). One purpose of immunity is that it allows officers to perform their duties without the constant fear of defending themselves against de minimus (minimal) claims for money damages. There is a current major push to eliminate qualified immunity for police officers. The last several weeks have made clear that police officers in the United States are afforded far more protections than those who they are sworn to protect. For example, a victim of sexual abuse who speaks out publicly against her abuser may be charged with slander or libel and face a future of poverty because of it.
While sexual assault is already incredibly challenging to prove and prosecute, it becomes increasingly so when the assault is perpetrated by an officer whose job is to protect members of society (Corley, 2017). In cases of police sexual violence, most survivors do not come forward - imagine the added fear of reporting your abuser to those who have a personal interest in protecting them. After a teenage girl in Brooklyn was raped by two police officers, at least nine other officers came to her hospital room to discourage her from going through with a rape kit that could prove his guilt (Ritchie, 2018).
The mainstream, anti-violence movement is often silent about police violence that affects Black women and women of color because they are deeply invested, especially financially, in police as a solution to violence. This makes it difficult to confront the reality that police are also perpetrators of violence themselves (Corley, 2017). This is not a recent phenomenon. Sexual violence by police, law enforcement, and occupying colonial armies has been a threat throughout U.S. history and is part of the arsenal of oppression against communities of color. There's no question that this is a systemic problem (Corley, 2017).
There are measures police departments can take to prevent and detect police sexual violence, which Ritchie has outlined in her article for The Washington Post (2018), including analyzing data regarding women being stopped by officers, leveraging GPS to track patrol cars, and conducting spontaneous check-ins by supervisors (Ritchie, 2018). Ritchie recommends we reduce the number of police encounters and the power held by the police overall, a solution that aligns with the Defund the Police movement that has become popular as of late. She also explains that a public health approach, rather than a criminalized approach, to drug and prostitution offenses, could eliminate cases of extortion for sex and rape by police officers unto women (Ritchie, 2018).
Despite plausible solutions, not much has been accomplished in the fight against police sexual misconduct thus far. The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) hasn’t taken a stand against this issue because of a lack of uproar against it (Ritchie, 2018). This only proves that they would rather place the onus on survivors than prevent the horrendous crimes committed by their own officers and perpetuated by their culture (Ritchie, 2018).
If you’re reading this, perhaps you are a survivor or someone close to you is. Sexual assault is much more common and deeply rooted in our society than was previously understood. The intricacies of reporting an assault, or even sharing it with others, not only prevents survivors from seeking justice but prevents society from addressing and solving the problem at its core. Understanding the additional obstacles that exist for survivors of police sexual violence is critical in our approach to dismantling violent abuses of power and the epidemic of sexual assault.
If you would like to learn more about what crimes police officers have perpetuated visit https://policecrime.bgsu.edu/Home/Crimes.