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A Rash of Police Sexual Violence – Why I’ll be Marching for Black Women on September 30th

According to a 2015 investigation by the Buffalo News, based on over 700 cases documented over a ten year period, on average a police officer is caught in an act of sexual misconduct every 5 days. And those are just the ones who are caught, representing, by all accounts, just the tip of the iceberg of this pervasive yet invisible form of police violence.

Last week, 3 cases came to light in a period of just 2 days – first, on September 12th, NBC Philadelphia reported on a New Jersey State Trooper who resigned after admitting that he would pull women over to ask them out on dates, go through their phones, sometimes copy pictures and video of them, and demand their phone numbers. He would turn off the microphone on his body camera and later claim it malfunctioned, and then lie about the gender of drivers he pulled over to cover up the numbers of women he targeted. A plea deal entered in a criminal case against him permanently bars him from working as a public employee – an unusual outcome. More often, officers caught in acts of sexual misconduct simply move on to another department in what researchers call the “officer shuffle.”

The same day a Minneapolis police officer was charged with sexually abusing his son’s 16 year-old girlfriend in a number of settings, including during “ride-alongs,” a term used to describe when community members, including young people involved in police “Explorer” programs, accompany police officers during their shifts.

Then on the 13th, a Cleveland Police officer pled guilty to pulling over two young women in a baseless traffic stop and sexually assaulting them by rubbing their genitals over their clothing with a sex toy he found in their car. He too will lose his law enforcement license.

And these are just the cases that happened to pop up on my Twitter feed as I randomly checked it before calling it quits for the day on Thursday. They are all consistent with patterns of police misconduct identified by research summarized in Invisible No More: traffic stops are frequent sites of police sexual misconduct, and up to a quarter of instances of police sexual violence target minors, often in the context of Explorer programs and “ride-alongs.” These patterns – the means the officers used to avoid detection – point us to interventions that could easily be made to prevent police sexual violence, such as tracking, monitoring, and better supervising officers’ traffic stops, and paying close attention to the gender of drivers pulled over and the outcomes of stops targeting women. They also point us to what doesn’t work – such as reliance on body cameras that officers can and do turn off when they are engaged in all kinds of misconduct, including sexual harassment and assault.

But as research I conducted as a Soros Justice Fellow shows, the vast majority of police departments across the country take no action whatsoever to prevent, detect, or hold officers accountable for police sexual violence. Investigations of the Baltimore and Chicago police departments, as well as earlier probes into police sexual misconduct in Eugene, Oregon and Philadelphia, found police responses to complaints of police sexual violence sorely lacking.

An In These Times investigation by Ida B. Wells Nation Institute Fellow Adeshina Emmanuel published last week explains in part why this is the case – resistance by police unions to independent investigation and oversight in cases of police sexual violence. Another reason, articulated by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, who issued guidance to police departments on the issue in 2011, is that “we don’t see a groundswell from people who are protesting their police departments for this kind of activity.” It’s long past time to change that.

Recognizing that Black women, girls, trans, gender non-conforming people and fem(me)s are prime targets of police sexual violence, a policy brief I wrote with Monique Morris of the National Black Women’s Justice Institute that was released by the Ms. Foundation this week calls for concrete action to prevent, detect, and ensure accountability for police sexual violence in the context of campaigns for Expanded Sanctuary and Freedom Cities. The Vision for Black Lives includes a similar goal. And one of the central demands of the September 30th March for Black Women is “to eliminate incarcerations, incidences of rape and “sexual misconduct”, police murder and violence against all Black women, and especially transwomen.”

These are demands that can and must be integrated and prioritized in the agendas of our movements for police accountability and racial, gender, and reproductive justice.

See you in the streets on September 30th for our sisters and siblings who are survivors of police sexual violence.