Want to Get Away With Harassment? Become a Cop

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A little over a week ago, a Kentucky state trooper resigned following allegations that he’d had sex with a woman he apprehended in exchange for not bringing her into jail. Days earlier, a Bay Area paper reported that an officer stepped down after assaulting a 17-year-old girl participating in the San Leandro “police explorer” program. In early November, the two NYPD detectives who were accused of raping a teenager in the back of a police van resigned rather rather than face trial.

It’s been estimated that every five days, a police officer is caught in an act of sexual abuse or harassment—a number cobbled together from victim reports and press inquiries, and one that’s certainly much higher given that only around one-third of women who are raped in this country report an incident at all. Despite dozens of investigations and a 2011 special report from the International Association of Chiefs of Police on the problem of sexual violence, reform efforts have ranged from ignoring the problem entirely to implementing periodic harassment training. An inquiry from Al Jazeera found only three out of 20 departments had taken the IACP’s rather pointed recommendations, which included “victim-centered” investigations carried out by outside agencies.

As powerful and well-compensated men are toppling across industries, the question of what happens to abusers too obscure or protected to become a part of the mass reorganization remains: For every famous name cornered, harassed, and abused, there are hundreds of women unable to share in the recalibrations happening in more conspicuous industries. Rebecca Traister, overcome with messages from women whose lives and careers had been ruined, wrote recently of having to explain to women their abusers’ names were just on the wrong side of a Weinstein or a Lauer.

Moving beyond a movement that ejects men by destroying their reputations and taking their money requires looking at positions with more power and less spotlight, professions by decades of institutional practice that let abusers go unchecked. As Timothy Mahr, a former cop and criminologist at the University of Missouri–St. Louis recently says, the police “have policies for everything—they’re two volumes thick.” But they don’t have many that halt sexual misconduct, and their collective bargaining agreements negotiate pay raises and vacation along with state accountability in the same breath.

For many women, particularly in service-oriented professions like hospitality, collective action can force management to fire harassers and create avenues for redress. But police unions have often found themselves at odds with the broader labor movement. On a theoretical level, they serve to protect private property and were arguably created to control the working class; more practically, they have been instrumental in battling affirmative action and striking down reforms to curb abuses of power like these.


Organizations like the Fraternal Order of Police—so named in the early 20th century to distance itself from the associations with the lowly term “union”—are powerful political lobbies, and the contracts they negotiate with city agencies are often the standard-bearers for how officers are disciplined. They’ve been criticized by mainstream outlets for protecting bad cops who use deadly force against unarmed black men. Those papers have paid less attention to how they create safe haven for serial harassers—and given the available data there are a large number of abusers on the force. Even the IACP listed the factors that give cops “opportunities for sexual misconduct,” among them that cops are in a position to exercise power, with little oversight, over vulnerable populations.

A few years ago, an AP investigation in 41 states suggested sexual misconduct was among “the most prevalent type of complaint among law officers.” The Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, report from 2010 found harassment and abuse to be a prevalent complaint against officers, second only to “excessive force.” For women who are targeted by the police, the two often go together. As Andrea Ritchie, a writer and advocate for women of color assaulted by police, told Splinter last year, the sexual violence women experience at the hands of the police can sometimes be overlooked to focus rage on fatal encounters.


Another recent investigation among the string of projects addressing sexual violence and American police found 70 percent of assailants targeted crime victims, informants, motorists, and participants in youth programs—people who already facing barriers to speaking up, never mind having to report the crime to another member of the PD. “Officers will go after people they oftentimes don’t think are credible,” like sex workers, people who are addicted to drugs, and those with long criminal histories, says Timothy Mahr.

And even if survivors do report, the same rules that shield officers from other charges prevent serial offenders from being recognized. Collective bargaining agreements, often negotiated behind closed doors, usually require that misconduct records are purged after a period of 18 months to five years; if an officer is investigated by his department, he is often given access to materials including body cam footage and witness statements prior to being called to testify. And in many states with police officer bills of rights, even recommendations from civilian review boards—police reformists’ favored solution to police brutality and abuse—can be easily appealed, sometimes under the eye of a department-appointed arbitrator.


All of which protects cops whose use of force has proven to be inappropriate or deadly, from a single reported incident to repeated offenses, but proves particularly difficult for rooting out sexual misconduct. Sexual assaulters have high rates of repeat offenses. Domestic violence is one of the greatest indicators of sexual harassment and abuse.


Advocates of keeping disciplinary records out of sight say it keeps cops from being falsely accused or having their reputations ruined by a single anonymous source—the kinds of sources that have inspired women in other circumstances to come forward. But in 62 of the 82 large cities where Reuters recently reviewed police contracts and local law, officer misconduct records are purged, many regardless of what the source is. Of the thousands of contracts in effect, very few—if any—make significant exception for officers accused of sexual harassment or on-duty assault.

Stephen Rushin is a researcher and criminologist at the Loyola School of Law in Chicago. He’s spent the last couple of years collecting police union contracts, analyzing more than 800 individual documents from across the country. He says he’s seen only one contract in his research that made direct reference to discipline for sexual misconduct, but worries more generally about the “pattern of similar behavior” that’s lost when officer records are purged.


Of the 81 cities’ contracts with local police departments collected by Campaign Zero, a Black Lives Matter-affiliated campaign to increase police transparency, only two contracts address the problem: They have startling ramifications for an officer accused of sexual misconduct, and happen to be in Louisiana, a state that’s only revoked six officer licenses in the last dozen years.


In Baton Rouge, the police department’s agreement with the city stipulates that any complaint that involves “sexual misconduct, sexual harassment, or domestic violence” be destroyed after five years unless there are similar complaints—a period of time Rushin says is generally on the longer end. (The city’s latest contract is still under negotiation, following pushback from the activist group Together Baton Rouge; the proposed 2018 agreement would have shortened that period of time, in some cases, to 18 months.) In accordance with the state of Louisiana’s officer bill of rights, an officer has the right to request instances of any violation, including domestic violence or “domestic dispute,” be deleted from his file.

None of which should be a surprise: Police unions have thrown their political weight around elsewhere to ensure officers accused of sexual misconduct aren’t punished, even in the imperfect civilian system. In September, under threat of a new oversight board, both the Chicago and Illinois chapters of the Fraternal Order of Police invested heavily in lobbyists to soften the Law Enforcement Sexaul Assault Investigation Act, resulting in an amendment that would functionally gut the bill, removing the requirement for Chicago police accused of rape to be investigated by an outside arbitrator.


As Rushin points out, when unions like these negotiate contracts, it’s usually only the police in the room: an overwhelmingly male voting bloc making rules to keep its own installed and free of reprimand. City agencies offer such “employment protections” as these in lieu of pay raises, an odd bastardization of the labor movement’s goals. And when records are purged regularly, there is little chance of reform within the department, even if women did want to come forward—which they simply aren’t likely to, given the balance of risk and reward if you’re a person considering going to the police to report a policeman who assaulted you.

“Will this moment result in a larger number of cases against the PD?” Mahr asks. “If officers are selecting victims with respect to those that have ‘credibility’ issues, or if a woman was assaulted 8 years ago by the police?Probably not.”

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About the author

Molly Osberg

Molly Osberg is a Senior Reporter with G/O Media.