It’s Time For A Systemic Response To The Epidemic Of Police Sexual Violence
Daniel Holtzclaw, convicted in December and scheduled to be sentenced today for sexually assaulting and raping 8 of 13 Black women who accused him of on-duty sexual misconduct, is certainly not the first police officer to have used the power of the badge to violate those he is sworn to serve and protect. Unfortunately, he certainly won’t be the last.
In fact, Holtzclaw’s predatory ways are eerily reminiscent of those of Eugene, Oregon police officer Roger Magaña, whose case I wrote about 10 years ago in The Color of Violence: The INCITE! Anthology. Magaña was convicted in 2004 of sexual assault and rape of a dozen women under very similar circumstances, preying on women guilty of nothing more than driving or walking while Black, criminalized through the “war on drugs,” “broken windows” policing, and the policing of prostitution, and survivors of violence. Like Holtzclaw, he traded on the expectation that the women he targeted – Black, low-income, criminalized or otherwise vulnerable – wouldn’t be believed. And for years, he was right – early complaints were dismissed as “the grumblings of prostitutes and junkies.” He also traded on the threat of arrest and retaliation – in one instance threatening to blow a woman’s insides out if she ever told on him.
Both the Holtzclaw and Magaña cases are consistent with patterns identified by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, academics, former law enforcement agents, feminist researchers, human rights organizations, and grassroots organizers. Sadly, the experiences of the Black women who had the courage to come forward to testify against Holtzclaw, while unique to them, are also all too similar to those I have uncovered over the past two decades in my research, advocacy and litigation focused on policing of Black women and LGBTQ people and women and LGBTQ people of color. And their stories all too similar to stories I have heard in countless workshops, know your rights trainings and public forums – stories that, like theirs, rarely see the light of day, command national headlines, or animate our organizing.
The Holtzclaw case highlights the systemic nature of police sexual violence, and the need for a systemic response – not only from law enforcement agencies and the federal government, but also from police accountability movements, civil rights organizations, churches, and women’s anti-violence groups. Sexual violence at the hands of state actors – from colonial armies to slave patrols to Jim Crow police to the present – has been a consistent weapon of race-based police brutality since 1492, playing out against a legal and social context in which the rape of Black women wasn’t even a crime for a significant period of this nation’s history.
Much more remains to be said and written about the policing paradigms and practices, the structural relations of power and criminalization, and the complete lack of visibility and accountability that facilitate and enable police sexual violence against women and trans people of color. Suffice it to say for now that if we want to honor the courage and resilience of the 13 women who came forward against the odds, taking the risk of being vilified as they were in the courtroom, to denounce Holtzclaw’s actions, we need to look beyond this single cop, this single case, and this single conviction and work toward systemic change.
Here are four advocacy arenas in which we can fight police sexual misconduct, along with 5 specific actions we can take:
- Challenge systems of policing that make Black women vulnerable to sexual misconduct and abuse by police – racial profiling, the “war on drugs,” policing of prostitution, and “broken windows” policing, all of which were implicated in the Holtzclaw case and render Black women and trans people and women and trans people of color vulnerable to sexual assault and extortion. What you can do today:
- Call your representative and demand that they become a sponsor of the End Racial Profiling Act of 2015, which would, for the first time would ban profiling based on gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation alongside race, religion and national origin across the country.
- Prevention and detection through policy and oversight – the vast majority of police departments, including Oklahoma City, don’t have a policy specifically prohibiting, preventing and punishing on-duty sexual misconduct by police officers, despite the guidance issued by the International Association of Chiefs of Police urging departments to take action on this issue.
In May of 2015, at the urging of women’s and anti-violence organizations, the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing recommended that the U.S. Department of Justice promote and disseminate guidance to local law enforcement agencies on documenting, preventing and addressing sexual misconduct by law enforcement agents. What you can do today:
- Call, write or email the U.S. Department of Justice Community Oriented Policing Service to demand development and dissemination of a model policy in partnership with women’s, anti-violence, and LGBT groups!
- Call, write or email the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs to demand that they enforce the provisions of the Prison Rape Elimination Act that apply to police lock-ups and places of detention.
- Call your local police department and ask them if they have a policy specifically addressing on-duty police sexual misconduct against members of the public – and if not, why not! If you need a model policy to share with your local department, contact me.
- Data collection – there is currently no official data collection regarding police sexual misconduct at the local, state or federal levels.
In May of 2015, at the urging of women’s and anti-violence organizations, the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing recommended that the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the Center for Disease Control collect data on sexual misconduct by law enforcement agents.
- Call, write or email the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics to demand that data collection on police sexual misconduct begin this year!
- Call your local police department and ask them if they can provide data on the number of sexual misconduct allegations, complaints, and discipline cases against officers each year and if not, demand they collect and publicize the data!
- Oversight and accountability – very few civilian oversight bodies, special prosecutors, or other police oversight and accountability bodies investigate, document, or raise public awareness around complaints of police sexual misconduct. Often, the cases are referred right back to the police to investigate through internal affairs, deterring many survivors from reporting or pursuing complaints, and subjecting them to further police violence and abuse by investigating officers. What you can do today:
- Call your local civilian oversight body and demand that they start to accept complaints of sexual misconduct, including anonymously and by third parties, and ensure that their staff are trained to respond and offer support and referrals to survivors. Demand that they raise public awareness of the issue and of the fact that they accept complaints, and publicize data annually regarding the number and patterns of sexual misconduct complaints they receive annually.
There is much more that needs to be done to address systemic police sexual assault – but these actions represent first steps toward honoring the leadership and courage of the #OKC13 and the Black women of OKC Artists for Justice who are working tirelessly to lift up their experiences, by working toward a world where what happened to the #OKC13 won’t happen again.