Daniel Holtzclaw is far from the first police officer to have used the power of the badge to violate those he was sworn to serve and protect. And unfortunately, he won’t be the last. In fact, Holtzclaw’s predatory ways are eerily reminiscent of those of Eugene, Ore., police officer Roger Magaña, convicted in 2004 of sexual assault and rape of a dozen women over an eight-year period. Like Holtzclaw, he preyed on women criminalized through the “war on drugs,” broken windows policing, and the policing of prostitution, as well as survivors of violence and women labeled as mentally ill. Magaña would threaten arrest and then trade leniency for sexual acts. In some cases, Magaña used the pretext of conducting “welfare checks,” unscheduled visits where officers gain entry into private homes, by simply stating that they believe a person’s well-being is at risk. In other instances, he conducted invasive and abusive searches of women on the side of the road. Magaña also threatened to retaliate against women if they reported him: one woman described Magaña putting his service weapon against her genitals and saying he would “blow her insides out” if she told anyone. This intimidation, along with indifference to the problem in the police department, allowed Magaña to engage in this conduct with impunity for almost a decade before his assaults came to light. Like the Holtzclaw survivors, many of the women who eventually came forward said they initially did not report the assaults because they feared they would not be believed. And their fears proved to be founded: police files indicate that at least half a dozen officers and supervisors heard complaints about Magaña’s sexual violence over the years but dismissed them as the “grumblings of junkies and prostitutes.”
Echoes of the Magaña case resonated again in 2016 when the DOJ investigation of the Baltimore Police Department revealed a number of instances in which officers had extorted sex from women in the sex trades in exchange for leniency, and that the department had conducted shoddy and incomplete investigations that had led to no consequences for the officers involved. In the intervening decade, researchers have consistently documented patterns of inadequate investigations of police sexual violence.
Researchers have consistently documented patterns of inadequate investigations of police sexual violence.
The widespread, systemic, and almost routine nature of police sexual violence remains largely invisible to the public eye, though it chronically festers on the streets and in alleys, squad cars, and police lockups. A 2015 investigative report by the Buffalo News cataloging more than 700 cases concluded, “In the past decade, a law enforcement official was caught in a case of sexual abuse or misconduct at least every five days.” A national study of officer arrests for sexual misconduct between 2005 and 2011 found that one-half of the cases involved on-duty sexual offenses, one-fifth forcible rape, and almost one-quarter forcible fondling, and that almost one-half targeted minors. The study further notes that “distinctions between on-and off-duty police crime are often difficult to make” and that off-duty sexual offenses are often facilitated by the power of the badge or the presence of an official service weapon. According to the Cato Institute, sexual misconduct is the second most frequently reported form of police misconduct, after use of excessive force. Yet it is clearly not the second most frequently talked about.
The reasons for the seemingly impenetrable veil shrouding sexual abuse by officers are many and complex. One is a lack of data. As of 2016, there are no official statistics regarding the number of rapes and sexual assaults committed by police officers in the United States. To the extent that sexual assault by state actors has been documented at all, it has been in detention facilities such as jails and prisons. The limited data gathered by federal and state governments on the use of excessive force by law enforcement officers do not include information on the number of allegations, complaints, or incidents of rape, sexual assault, or coerced sexual acts. Similarly, data gathered by the federal government on the overall prevalence of rape and sexual assault do not include information concerning the number of perpetrators who are police officers and other law enforcement agents. In the absence of official data, law enforcement authorities can continue to sweep the issue under the rug—and, when it does come to light, claim that it is dealt with swiftly and decisively through discipline and criminal prosecution. Likewise, the government can continue to act as though the issue doesn’t exist: when I testified before the Prison Rape Elimination Commission, one of the commissioners told me it was hard to take action against police sexual violence without concrete data. Thus, sexual violence by police remains what former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper dubs a “nasty little secret.”
In the absence of official data, law enforcement authorities can continue to sweep the issue under the rug.
Invisibility is also perpetuated in part because, in the absence of official data, our understanding of police violence is shaped by research studies based on complaints and media reports. It is estimated that only one-third of rapes and sexual assaults are ever reported. This rate is no doubt far lower among women who are raped by the very law enforcement agents they would have to report to. As Penny Harrington, former Portland chief of police, points out, “The women are terrified. Who are they going to call? It’s the police who are abusing them.” Many survivors—like the woman I met in New Orleans, like the Holtzclaw survivors, like me and many others who have told me their stories over the years—don’t report incidents out of shame or fear that they will not be believed. Some survivors fear exposure of their sexual orientation or gender identity, retaliation by police officers, or criminal charges or deportation because they are undocumented, are involved in sex work, or are using controlled substances. Some may fear coming forward in isolation, in the absence of support from anti-police brutality or anti-violence advocates. Or, as Joo-Hyun Kang, director of Communities United for Police Reform, once suggested to me, maybe sexual violence by the police just becomes part of a seamless web of sexual harassment, assault, and violence that begins for women of color in the morning when they take the garbage out and are whistled at by their neighbor, continues with endemic sexual harassment at work or school, and ends when they are propositioned or groped during a stop by a cop on the way home. Simultaneously ordinary and out of the ordinary.
Even when a woman takes the risk to lodge a complaint, there is the question of whether it will be recorded, taken seriously, and covered by the media, particularly given that officers are known to target individuals whose credibility will be challenged. By its very nature, sexual violence is hidden away from public view, witnesses, and cop-watching cameras, making it more likely that complaints will be deemed unsubstantiated. Because officers can often rely on threats of force or arrest, there are often no injuries requiring immediate medical attention and therefore no “evidence” beyond a woman’s word.
As a result, researchers almost universally caution that because of these limitations, documented cases “may represent only the tip of the iceberg.” Yet, even in the absence of official data and the limitations of other sources, sexual violence by law enforcement is one of the areas in which the greatest amount of social science research on women’s experiences of policing exists.
Excerpted from Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color by Andrea J. Ritchie (Beacon Press, 2017). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press. Book Ends is CASSIUS’ hub for all things lit(erature). Check back each week for book-related content.