|It's time to stop sexual assault by the police and demand police accountability!|
Peoples' Justice and Black Women's Blueprint endorse the following article by civil rights attorney, Andrea Ritchie, regarding the May 26th acquittal of 2 NYPD officers on charges of rape:
SHOCKING, BUT NOT UNUSUAL…It’s long past time we took steps to stop sexual assault by police.
The recent conclusion of criminal proceedings against former NYPD officers Kenneth Mata and Franklin Moreno on charges of raping a woman they were called to assist serves as an important wake-up call to the need for systemic approaches to sexual abuse by police. While, to both their tremendous credit, District Attorney Cy Vance’s office aggressively prosecuted Mata and Moreno, and Commissioner Ray Kelly immediately fired both officers following their convictions of official misconduct, the case exposed an ugly underbelly of policing in New York City which demands our immediate attention.
The case involving Mata and Moreno, much like those involving two NYPD officers charged with sexual assault of a Bushwick woman stopped for a traffic infraction in 2005 (Two Officers Are Charged in Sex Attack, NYT 11/22/05;Woman Says Officers Sexually Abused Her, NYT 11/21/05), and a former NYPD officer convicted of offering to destroy a summons in exchange for oral sex in 2010 (Officer Is Convicted of Abusing Power in Seeking Sex, NYT 01/15/10), came as a shock to many New Yorkers, as do ongoing reports that police charged with enforcing prostitution laws all too often extort sex in exchange for leniency (Nicholas Kristof, Girls on Our Streets, 05/06/2009).
Such cases challenge our perceptions of police as protectors in efforts to combat violence against women. They also fall outside the scope of mainstream discourse around police misconduct and brutality, which, more often than not, rightly centers the experiences of young men of color presumed to be straight, but excludes of those of women, including young women of color, and lesbian, gay,bisexual and transgender communities, including LGBT people of color. Similarly, current and critical conversations around the NYPD’s “stop and frisk” practices largely obscure sexualized aspects of such practices – which, for many young women of color and LGBT people of color extend to “stop, frisk,and sexually harass,” or “stop, frisk, and grope,” and can lead to even more serious forms of sexual assault.
Experiences of sexual harassment, assault, abuse and outright rape by police officers are by no means isolated or anomalous. A 2002 nationwide report by the Police Professionalism Initiative of the Department of Criminal Justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha entitled Driving While Female documented over 400 cases of sexual harassment and abuse by law enforcment officers in the context of traffic stops - only a quarter of which resulted in any kind of sanction - in a single year. One need not look far for examples - in 2001, a rash of cases came to light in which Suffolk and Nassau County law enforcement officers forced women to perform sexual acts and/or strip in public (A Few Bad Cops, or a Problem With the System? NYT 2/11/01).
The authors of the report - including well-known police accountability expert Samuel Walker - concluded “there is good reason to believe that these cases represent only the tip of the iceberg. Many victims do not come forward because of humiliation and fear of reprisal. And … some police departments do not accept and investigate complaints from many victims who do come forward.” These sentiments were echoed by Penny Harrington, former Portland Chief of Police and founder of the National Center for Women and Policing, who pointed out in a 2006 Philadelphia Inquirer series entitled Extorting Sex with a Badge, “The women are terrified. Who are they going to call? It's the police who are abusing them.”
Not surprisingly, officers target people who are less likely to come forward – and who are less likely to be believed when they do - including women who, like Moreno and Mata’s victim, are intoxicated or under the influence of controlled substances. Threats of retribution and retaliation against women who report sexual assault by police officers are commonplace, while discipline and prosecutions are rare, creating a strong disincentive to report. The Department of Justice estimates that overall, only 1/3 of all rapes and sexual assaults are everreported to law enforcement authorities – imagine how much lower thatpercentage is when the perpetrator is the police.
Prosecutions of officers for sexual abuse are not the rule, they are the exception. A 2006 Salt Lake City Tribune article quoted the Utah Peace Officer Standards and Training Director estimating that as many as 30% of the sexual misconduct cases investigated by his agency not criminally prosecuted. Where prosecutions dotake place, they are most often for misdemeanors. And, even where prosecutorssuch as District Attorney Vance do the right thing, officers – like Mata and Moreno - are nevertheless only convicted of relatively minor offenses such as “official misconduct.” This is not surprising when you consider that, as one legal scholar put it, “the characteristics that make the victims vulnerable…are the same characteristics that make them less credible to juries. For example, victims may have been engaging in criminal activity when the police brutality occurred, and from the jury’s perspective, are from the wrong race,class, sex or sexual orientation. In addition, the victim may have been drunk, on drugs, have a history of alcoholism or drug addiction, or may be mentally ill.”
It’stime we took affirmative steps to stop sexual violence by police officers before it starts. Believe it or not, there is currently no explicit prohibition in the NYPD Patrol Guide against sexual harassment or assault of members of the public by police officers. Officers receive no training whatsoever on thematter beyond an admonition to treat everyone with courtesy, professionalismand respect. Instituting and enforcing a zero-tolerance policy for sexual assault, sexual harassment and sexualized behavior while on the job, as called for by a petition circulated by Change.org which gathered over 1000 signatures in 24 hours, is essential. Ensuring that existing complaint, data collection, and disciplinary measures address and account for sexualized police violence iscritical to enforcement of such a policy. It’s time to move past shock toaction.
Peoples’ Justice and Black Women’s Blueprint whole-heartedly endorse Andrea Ritchie’s thorough and thoughtful critique of police misconduct towards women and the LGBT community. As an alliance of community-based organizations working with a wide range of marginalized constituencies, we would also add:
This case not only brings to light the need to incorporate women’s experiences into discussions of police violence and develop systemic approaches to sexual abuse by the police. It also serves to underscore that the lack of police accountability is a systemic problem that has particular and dire consequences for communities and individuals that are more vulnerable to abuse due to their race, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, immigration status and/or ability.
A system that does not hold the police accountable for their actions gives officers the green light to act out societal power imbalances: In this case and many others mentioned in Ritchie’s article, male officers exerted power over women. The disproportionate use of the “stop and frisk” tactic in low-income, minority communities is indicative of on-going criminalizationof poor people of color (see: www.stopandfrisk.org.) Incidents such as the use of derogatory slurs in the 2009 arrest of Jeannette Grey and Tiffany Jiménez (see http://alp.org/node/367), the 1998 beating of Jalea Lamont, a trans women who called 911 during a severe asthma attack, and countless reports of inappropriate touching and illegal strip searches to determine the gender of trans and gender non-conforming New Yorkers, demonstrate that homophobia and transphobia persist in the NYPD. Officers also target immigrants, as, for example, in the May 8 beating of Wu Yi Zhuo, an elderly Chinese musician (Police Brutality Against Chinatown Elder in Columbus Park, Generasian, 05/12/11). For immigrants, inadequate translation services and drastic immigration consequences for minor convictions make interactions with the criminal justice system traumatic and potentially life and family destroying. Police officers also frequently criminalize those with disabilities, as in the 2007 killing of Khiel Copoin (Man, 18, Is Fatally Shot by Police in Brooklyn, NYT 11/13/07), and the 2008 killing of Iman Morales (Taser Use in Man’s Death Broke Rules, Police Say, NYT 09/25/08). In spite of the prevalence of such abuses, which are discriminatory in nature, few and inadequate mechanisms for holding individual officers and the Department accountable exist.
A police force that is hurting those it is supposed to protect, particularly some of the most vulnerable members of society, is an outrage and an affront to the civil and human rights of all that requires action on all levels; we must build an analysis of police violence as a systemic problem that has particular and increased impacts for all marginalized communities. We must demand independent prosecution of all case of police misconduct, reform of the Civilian Complaint Review Board to give it prosecutorial and disciplinary power, and harsher punishments for officers that commit acts of violence andinjustice. Most importantly, we must unite across differences of age, race, gender, gender identity, citizenship status, sexual orientation andability and build broad-base movement for police accountability and an end topolice violence.
Andrea Ritchie is civil rights attorney who has engaged in extensive research, writing, litigation and policy advocacy on policing, profiling, and physical and sexual violence by law enforcement agents against women and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in the US and Canada over the past two decades. She was invited to testify before the Prison Rape Elimination Commission in 2007 on sexual assault in police lockups, and is co-author of Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States (Beacon Press). Her book Violence Every Day: Racial Profiling and Police Brutality Against Women and Transgender People of Color is forthcoming in 2012 from South End Press.
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