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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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If there’s no pushback, one reason may be that the victims fear retaliation. “Women are terrified and won’t come forward,” says Diane Wetendorf, an author and advocate who has worked with victims for many years. Even in cases that don’t involve cops, only about a third of rapes and less than half of sexual assaults are ever reported, according to a 2004 DOJ study. The number of women reporting sex crimes involving cops likely is far lower. “Can you imagine how much harder it is to report abuse by a police officer?” asks New York City civil-rights attorney Andrea Ritchie, co-coordinator of Streetwise and Safe, a program trying to change the city’s policing practices toward LGBTQ youth of color. One tactic of abusive cops makes that especially true—extorting sexual favors from women who fear they could be charged with a crime, in exchange for leniency. Victims think that if they report what happened, their favorable treatment will disappear.

Advocates say only a radical shift—stronger federal laws that force better oversight of local police departments—will prevent more cases like Sarah Smith’s. Ritchie, for example, wants to see the federal 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act—which established “zero tolerance” for sexual abuse and sexual misconduct by prison and jail staff—expanded to apply to anyone in police custody, not just those in lockups. 

States also need to communicate with each other about cops who have been fired or allowed to resign for sexual misconduct. That’s not happening now—only 34 states contribute to the National Decertification Index, first implemented in 2000. That database holds the names of officers who have lost their certification for any type of misbehavior, including sexual misconduct, which allows police departments that are hiring to screen out bad-apple candidates. But without a national database to which all states contribute, the decertification system nationally will never work as it should. “It’s just nuts that we haven’t come together as a society on this,” says Roger Goldman, a law professor at the Saint Louis School University School of Law who’s an expert on police-licensing laws and has worked for 30 years to convince states to contribute to the database.

Maher thinks it’s time to create a mandatory federal database. In 1996, in fact, Senator Ben Nelson and Representative Harry Johnston, both Democrats, introduced bills to create a national registry of officers whose certification had been revoked. Both bills died in committee, in part because opponents said there was a lack of evidence that unfit officers were moving between states, notes Goldman in a 2001 paper in the St. Louis University Law Journal. That was the last attempt of its kind.

Advocates like Wetendorf think the only way to change the boys-will-be-boys police culture is to hire more women cops. Today women represent  about 13 percent of the force, and that figure is growing at less than half a percent per year, according to the IACP. A report last year from the Rand Corporation  said police departments appear to be doing too little to recruit women into the force. It also found that police hiring tests may be biased against women and that police culture may be marginalizing and discriminating against woman officers. Meanwhile, female officers continue to file discrimination and sexual-harassment lawsuits and are winning the majority of them, according to the IACP.

Activists have tried to draw attention to the issue in international forums, says Ritchie. In December 2007, 38 organizations submitted a report to the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination documenting ongoing incidents of police sexual assault and harassment. They made the case that the federal government’s failure to address the issue violates its obligations under the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. The groups submitted similar reports to two other U.N. committees.

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