4 alarming things about sexual assault and police that you probably don’t know

One very important side effect of the #MeToo movement is that more woman might feel empowered to report their sexual assault to law enforcement. But there are still some things about sexual assault and police officers that might make a woman hesitate to report rape or sexual abuse. Law enforcement officers are the first line of defense that women have against sexual predators, but sometimes going to the police just doesn’t seem like an option. Most police officers choose to go into law enforcement in order to protect and serve their communities, but there are some out there who abuse that power.

When the people who are supposed to protect you are just as threatening as other criminals, it’s no wonder that some women might not feel safe around police officers. According to national data, 86 percent of the nation’s police force are male and 78 percent of them are white.

There are a lot of ways police officers fail women and perpetuate rape culture, whether it’s bullying them during their interviews, not believing women at all when they come forward, or engaging in other forms of victim blaming. At the very worst, there are far too many reports of police officers actually being the sexual predators themselves, assaulting or harassing women when they stop them for traffic violations or when they’re in custody for something else.

Here are a few things you might not know about police and sexual assault:

1Police officers can legally have sex with people in custody in some states.


There are numerous reports of police officers assaulting women when they stop them or have them in custody for another alleged crime. There are 34 states now that still have a legal loophole that says that when a person is in the custody of law enforcement, officers can claim that it was consensual. The loophole most recently drew attention after a woman in New York City, who goes by the pseudonym Anna Chambers, alleged that two detectives, Richard Hall and Eddie Martins, raped her in the back of their police van. Forensic evidence showed that the two men did in fact have sex with her, but the detectives claimed that it was consensual and have plead not guilty to rape.

Although it might seem obvious to some of us that the power dynamic between a police officer and a person in their custody makes it so that consent isn’t possible, New York just passed a law last week addressing the issue. Oregon closed its loophole in 2005, as did Alaska in 2013 and Arizona in 2015, but there are still those other 34 states that allow an officer to allege that sex was consensual, even if a woman is handcuffed or behind bars.

2Sexual assault by police officers is rampant.


A year-long investigation of law enforcement done by the Associated Press in 2015 found that there were 990 police officers who lost their job for sexual misconduct between 2009 and 2014. “Misconduct” included sodomy and “other sexual assault, along with propositioning citizens for sex or having consensual (maybe) on duty sex. They also counted possession of child pornography in their tally. But the actual number of police officers who commit sex crimes is likely a lot higher, since California and New York, for example, didn’t offer up their records to the AP for the investigation and they have some of the largest law enforcement agencies in the nation.

Chief Bernadette DiPino of the Sarasota Police Department in Florida, who helped study police officers committing sexual assault for the International Association of Chiefs of Police said of the problem:

"It’s happening probably in every law enforcement agency across the country. 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.

According to a report from the Buffalo News, sexual misconduct is the second most reported form of police misconduct, with excessive force being the first. One in five police officers is accused of sexual misconduct every week in the country, which is also likely a lowball number given how inconsistently the crime is reported.

3Women of color, sex workers, and minors are especially at risk.


Police officers already have a greater presence in communities with a higher concentration of people of color. Because of this, along with stereotypes about black and other women of color, police officers prey on them more than any other group of people, Andrea Ritchie, author of Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color, explained to Teen Vogue. She added:

"They prey on teenagers, so national research will show that almost a quarter or more of cases of police sexual assault involve minors."

In a New York Times op-ed on the matter, Ritchie points out that a Government Accountability Office report on searches at airports found that Black, Asian-American, and Hispanic women were three times as likely as men of the same race to be subject to strip searches, including cavity searches. If women of color are searched more often simply before getting on a plane, it only follows that while police are stop and frisking people in their communities or booking women of color that they might be subject to the same kind of treatment.

4Closing legal loopholes is not enough.

The legal loophole that New York and other states closed with legislation just allows police officers to use the fact that a woman was in custody as a defense in sexual assault cases. It doesn’t prohibit them from having sex with people they detain. Given that so much sexual misconduct by police officers is underreported, closing the legal loophole only helps those whose cases actually get in front of a judge, as a great Twitter thread on subject by Ritchie points out.

More training, screening of officers, and getting women in power of police forces might be the only way to change the culture. The more police officers know that complaints against them will be taken seriously, maybe fewer of them will abuse their power. But that’s a big maybe.