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When Cops Rape ... and Nothing Happens

Police officers who sexually assault women rarely face the consequences of their actions. How can that be changed?
 
 
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When 20-year-old Sarah Smith got into an accident with a motorcyclist in 2008, it was nothing but bad news—she was driving with a suspended license. It got worse. When police showed up, officer Adam Skweres took Smith aside and implied that he could either make it look like the accident was her fault or give the other party a ticket. It depended on whether she’d agree to perform unspecified sexual favors. Skweres also threatened that if she told anyone, he’d “make sure you never walk, talk, or speak again,” and looked at his gun. That scared her enough that she immediately reported what he’d done to the police,  according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Another four years passed before the department arrested Skweres and suspended him without pay, and then only because he tried to rape a woman while on duty. By that time, Smith had moved out of the city for fear of running into him again. Three other women told stories similar to Smith’s, and on March 11 Skewers pleaded guilty to bribery, indecent assault, and other charges.

Stories of cops propositioning, harassing, and sexually assaulting women turn up every week around the country. February 18  saw the arrest of Houston officer Victor Chris for allegedly telling two women he would tear up their traffic tickets in exchange for sexual favors, according to the Houston Chronicle. Police  chargedSergio Alvarez, an officer from West Sacramento, California, on February 25 with allegedly kidnapping and raping six women while on duty. On March 1, Denver cop Hector Paez  got eight years in prison for driving a woman he’d arrested to a secluded spot and forcing her to perform oral sex. 

“Police sexual misconduct is common, and anyone who maintains it isn’t doesn’t get it,”  says retired Seattle police chief Norm Stamper, author of the book Breaking Rank.

Since no one is investing resources in learning how many victims are out there, we’re left with estimates and news accounts. As part of a 2008 study, former police officer Tim Maher, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, asked 20 police chiefs whether police sexual misconduct was a problem; 18 responded in the affirmative. The 13 chiefs willing to offer estimates thought an average of 19 percent of cops were involved—if correct, that translates to more than 150,000 police officers nationwide. An informal effort by the Cato Institute in 2010 to track the number of police sexual-misconduct cases just in news stories counted 618 complaints nationwide that year, 354 of which involved forcible nonconsensual sexual activity like sexual assault or sexual battery.  

The news steadily filtering in from around the country has forced police leaders nationally to take notice. The U.S. Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women funded the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) to develop a guide for police chiefs, issued in 2011, that encourages them to adopt specific policies in their departments to prevent police sexual misconduct. The DOJ funded the report after noting “recurring accusations of sexual offenses implicating law enforcement officers.”

Two years later, the IACP can’t tell whether its recommendations are making any difference.

No one keeps data on the number of victims of police sexual abuse, and the IACP says it can’t track the number of police departments that have adopted its recommendations. “We think there’s a good-faith effort by police departments out there to be more accountable,” says the IACP’s John Firman. But how would the IACP know, given that there’s no data on the number of victims or departments with such policies? Replies Firman, “Well, we could say the opposite—we don’t see a groundswell from people who are protesting their police departments for this kind of activity.”

 
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