Police rape: Like most rape, it’s hard to report and aimed at the disadvantaged
There’s a certain timeline of appropriate actions women are told to take if they are sexually attacked. Don’t shower; get help; call the police. That last one seems to be hardest – most rapes aren’t reported to law enforcement , and much of the mainstream advocacy against sexual assault is bent on changing that.
But how can we expect women to report their rapes to police when the police have done such a poor job in the past helping women and believing their stories? And what are victims to do when the very people they’re supposed to report to are the ones doing the attacking?
This week – as jury selection started for Daniel Holtzclaw, a former Oklahoma City police officer going on trial for the alleged sexual assault of 13 women – the Associated Press published the results of a year-long investigation showing that sexual assault committed by police officers isn’t that rare an occurrence. They found that over a six-year period approximately 1,000 police officers – a number they call “unquestionably an undercount” – had been fired for crimes ranging from rape and sexual misconduct to the possession of child abuse images.
One Florida police chief told the AP: “It’s so underreported and people are scared that if they call and complain about a police officer, they think every other police officer is going to be then out to get them.”
It’s not news that the very people tasked with helping others sometimes hurt them instead; police misconduct in the United States ranges from corruption to murder . So that sexual violence is also prevalent among officers, sadly, is not entirely shocking. But the way that police officers get away with their crimes – targeting the most marginalized women because they’re less likely to seek help or report the attacks – serves as an important reminder about the way power operates and how women are discredited when it comes to accusing someone of rape.
Holtzclaw, who is facing 36 charges, for example, is accused of targeting black women , many of whom were afraid of arrest or were drug users, making them all the more vulnerable to being disbelieved. One 44-year-old woman who is reportedly set to testify that Holtzclaw forced her to perform oral sex, for example, was a convicted felon. She said: “Who am I to a police officer?”
Holtzclaw, 28, was only charged after he attacked a woman with no criminal record (who therefore had less to be afraid of).
In a wholly predictable move, Holtzclaw’s defense attorneys have already used some of the accusers’ criminal history against them in questioning; they’ve already brought the victims’ histories up in their opening statements. The very reason these women were targeted will be used to try to discredit them.
This is part of the reason that some anti-rape activists are concerned about strategies that overly focus on reporting rapes to the criminal justice system. For many communities, there’s an understandable distrust of police, so asking women to rely on them for help is unrealistic.
When the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, the largest anti-sexual assault organization in the United States, suggested in its White House recommendations that campus rape be curbed by increasing efforts around criminal justice as opposed to campus adjudication processes, for example, younger activists weren’t pleased. Wagatwe Wanjuki, a board member of Know Your IX and a sexual assault survivor, wrote at the time : “I chose a school judicial process for many reasons.”
She continued: “I was a young woman of color uncomfortable with the use of an institution that is often violent, distrustful, and discriminatory towards people who look like me, it was preferable to using the criminal court process.”
And despite the abundance of important coverage on campus rape and consent, we still don’t pay nearly enough attention to the abuses that happen to women off campus – especially women who society pushes to the edges already, and who are the most in need of support. Not all women can go to the police, and not all police are the “good guys” – some are even the criminals. What we ask of victims needs to reflect that reality.
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