In February, New York State passed a legislation that would do away with the option for an officer charged with sexual assault to claim anyone “under arrest, in detention, or in actual custody” consented to the act. While this was a major step in achieving justice for survivors of police sexual violence, there is still much work to be done, as Andrea J. Ritchie points out in a recent article written for Rewire.
For Sexual Assault Awareness Month, CASSIUS is honored to speak with Ritchie about her eye-opening book, Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color, which explores the ways in which Black women, Indigenous women, and other women of color are subjected to mistreatment by law enforcement. Here, we discuss police sexual violence in recent years, how to achieve reparations for survivors, and what that means in the context of the #MeToo movement.
Invisible No More is available online and in stores now. Read our conversation below, then click here for an excerpt from chapter five, which reflects on the epidemic of police sexual violence in depth.
CASSIUS: Can you talk a little bit about Invisible No More in the context of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, particularly chapter five, which discusses police sexual violence?
Andrea Ritchie: Invisible No More summarizes research revealing that sexual violence and harassment by police officers is as much a central feature of policing as excessive or lethal force. In fact, it’s the second most frequently reported form of police misconduct, and according to a study by the Buffalo News, an officer is caught in an act of sexual misconduct every five days. And the vast majority of sexual violence by police officers never sees the light of day.
Yet despite these damning statistics, and despite the fact that sexual violence by police officers like former Oklahoma police officer Daniel Holtzclaw occasionally makes the news, sexual assault by those sworn to serve and protect is still shrouded in silence instead of at the center of our conversations during Sexual Assault Awareness Month or under the #MeToo hashtag. This is the case even though police officers arguably wield way more power over way more people on a daily basis—the power to kill, beat, arrest, charge, detain, refer parents to child welfare, the list is long—than Harvey Weinstein or Larry Nassar, and all too often use it to similar ends.
Part of the problem is our investment in the institution of policing and criminalization as the primary response to sexual violence, which makes it awkward, to say the least, to talk about sexual violence perpetrated by the very same people we charge with addressing it. This no doubt contributes to the studious avoidance of the topic in most mainstream #MeToo and #TimesUp conversations that continue to erase and devalue the experiences of Black women as a whole, and to promote prosecutions and the criminal legal system as the answer to sexual violence despite the fact that police and prisons are among its primary perpetrators and primary sites.
Sexual violence by police officers also rarely features in public discussions of police brutality, even though it is clearly one of its more egregious manifestations. Part of the issue lies in deeply entrenched notions of what we understand police violence to be—generally a police shooting or beating of an unarmed Black man—rendering sexual violence by police officers virtually invisible to movements for police accountability, even when it happens in front of our faces—as it did when Charnesia Corley was subjected to a completely unlawful vaginal cavity search in full public view at a Houston gas station in 2015. While her experience, and that of Holtzclaw’s victims, are unfortunately emblematic of the ways in which the war on drugs is waged on the bodies of Black women, it has not been the subject of widespread national protest, nor has it shaped movement demands.
And we don’t hear about police sexual violence because it typically takes place in private places, away from public view and cameras, and because police officers intentionally target people who are vulnerable, or in need of their protection—young women, survivors of sexual or domestic violence, immigrant women, women with disabilities. They also prey on people our communities all too often cast aside in the name of respectability politics—people who use drugs, drink, or trade sex, or who are homeless or live in public housing, or who are trans, lesbian, gay, bisexual, or queer. Black trans women report some of the highest levels of sexual violence and extortion by police officers.
In the end, survivors who do overcome the many obstacles to coming forward to tell their stories aren’t embraced or championed by broader movements against either police violence or sexual assault. This absence of public outcry and organizing around police sexual violence is definitely noted by police departments, who are therefore empowered to do nothing about it.
C.: What does New York’s recently passed legislation mean for women and girls like Anna Chambers? Does this qualify as justice? What more needs to be done in terms of reparations for survivors?
A.R.: I recently wrote about this for Rewire. The effect of the legislation is very limited. Basically, all it does is stop an officer who sexually assaults someone once they are under arrest or in custody from being able to defend against criminal charges by saying that the person consented. Of course, it’s important that survivors who are sexually assaulted by police officers while in handcuffs, in the back of police cruisers, or under threat of prosecution, physical or deadly force don’t have to then overcome a defense that they acquiesced to or even encouraged what happened to them—a trope as old as slavery in this country. But it’s far from a comprehensive solution to the problem, in part because so few cases make it that far, and because it does nothing to prevent it from happening in the first place.
I also want to be clear—because I have seen some very misleading statements in the media and on social media—there is no state where it is legal for a police officer to sexually assault anyone. Although police officers often act as though they are above the law, the existence of a consent defense is not a legal license to rape for police officers any more than it is for a person who commits a campus sexual assault, for instance.
Survivors of sexual violence by police officers need so much more than quick legislative fixes focused on after-the-fact criminal prosecutions which put the burden on survivors to come forward. So many survivors are afraid to tell their stories for fear of retaliation, prosecution, or being denied help in the future, because there is nowhere they can report sexual assault by the police other than the police, because even if they do come forward they are often not believed, or not deemed a victim worthy of a prosecution, or because they choose not to endure the secondary victimization of an investigation and criminal prosecution. In most cases there isn’t DNA evidence or witnesses, and certainly not body cam or dash cam video, so it’s often a survivor’s word against an officer’s—and officers deliberately target people who they think won’t be believed, who society has deemed inviolable or disposable, or who risk criminalization or deportation if they do come forward: Black women, Native women, immigrant women, young women, survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, women who use drugs or alcohol, people who are involved in the sex trades.
Justice requires us to go further, to ensure that sexual violence by police officers doesn’t happen in the first place, and to repair the harm to those who have suffered in silence. We need action focused on prevention, and on catching officers early on (most are repeat offenders) and removing from the force, without forcing survivors to initiate and participate in the process. We also need to make it easier for them to do so—for instance by following the lead of the New York City Civilian Review Board and empowering civilian oversight agencies to investigate sexual assault complaints from a survivor-centered and supportive perspective, and offering survivors opportunities to obtain accountability outside of the criminal legal system.
And yes, we need to pursue reparations for the thousands of survivors who have suffered in silence the long-term effects of sexual violence by the very people society claims we should entrust with our safety, and particularly for those who no longer have—or never had—the option of pursuing a criminal prosecution. We need to acknowledge the issue as a systemic, pervasive, and widespread form of police violence, take action to put a stop to it, and devote resources to support healing for survivors.
C.: In the age of #MeToo, what do you want readers to walk away with after reading chapter five of Invisible No More and from the book in general?
A.R: I want readers to walk away with more than just a longer list of names and more information about forms of police violence they may never have thought about before, like “gender searches,” strip searches, cavity searches, rape and sexual harassment and assault.
I want the stories and statistics in the book to actually change the way we think about the issues, and to expand the demands we make to address them. That would require us to break once and for all the silence around police sexual violence, to say, as Women’s All Points Bulletin (WAPB) in Chicago has been urging, #CopsToo, to re-examine our visions of safety and who we are entrusting with it—and to challenge the conditions that make Black women primary targets of sexual violence by police and in our communities.
It would also require us to expand the ways in which we understand and organize around police violence. I just saw an agenda for tackling police brutality issued by young Black legislators that is explicitly informed by and focused on the experiences of young men of color. While some of the proposals would also benefit young Black women—such as ending “broken windows” policing, a primary site of police sexual harassment, extortion, and violence, for instance—there is no recognition in that platform, or in so many others, of the ways in which police violence of all kinds, including and especially sexual harassment and assault, affects women of color, and therefore no proposals explicitly addressing their experiences. Those are missed opportunities to bring sexual harassment, assault, and violence by police officers out of the shadows, to stand with Black survivors of this historic and present-day form of racialized police violence, and to advance specific solutions that would prevent, detect, and hold officers accountable for violating members of Black communities.
My hope is that we will not keep repeating these same mistakes, perpetrating the same erasures, and leaving so many survivors of sexual violence and police violence out of our conversations, movements, and demands, whether they are focused on ending gender-based violence, accountability for police violence, or building toward Black liberation.
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