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Investigation reveals hundreds of cops who’ve lost their badges for sexual misconduct

The Associated Press published an important piece yesterday about sexual misconduct, abuse, assault, and harassment by law enforcement. Based on state records on police officers whose licenses were revoked for a variety of sex crimes, the piece shows the terrible conseqences of “a propensity for officers to use the power of their badge to prey on the vulnerable.” 

In a yearlong investigation of sexual misconduct by U.S. law enforcement, The Associated Press uncovered about 1,000 officers who lost their badges in a six-year period for rape, sodomy and other sexual assault; sex crimes that included possession of child pornography; or sexual misconduct such as propositioning citizens or having consensual but prohibited on-duty intercourse.

The number is unquestionably an undercount because it represents only those officers whose licenses to work in law enforcement were revoked, and not all states take such action. California and New York — with several of the nation’s largest law enforcement agencies — offered no records because they have no statewide system to decertify officers for misconduct. And even among states that provided records, some reported no officers removed for sexual misdeeds even though cases were identified via news stories or court records.

“It’s happening probably in every law enforcement agency across the country,” said Chief Bernadette DiPino of the Sarasota Police Department in Florida, who helped study the problem for the International Association of Chiefs of Police. “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.”

The investigation isn’t a comprehensive study, but the evidence suggests that sexual misconduct is one of the most common types of complaint against law enforcement officers. But, as many others have pointed out, such abuse still isn’t discussed as much as other forms of police violence. As Vero asked a year ago in a piece about why we don’t hear as much about women victims of state violence, “How many women’s names do we not know because they don’t dare come forward? Because the violence they experience at the hands of the police is sexual, and the shame and stigma around sexual violence silences them?”

The AP piece attributes the lack of attention to a few different factors: “Even as cases around the country have sparked a national conversation about excessive force by police, sexual misconduct by officers has largely escaped widespread notice due to a patchwork of laws, piecemeal reporting and victims frequently reluctant to come forward because of their vulnerabilities — they often are young, poor, struggling with addiction or plagued by their own checkered pasts.” They’re often vulnerable in other ways too — they’re women of color, queer and trans folks, undocumented womensex workers or those profiled as such.

In a culture that’s skeptical of victims of sexual violence in the best of circumstances, these marginalized folks often feel utterly powerless when the perpetrator is a police officer. “I didn’t know what to do,” one teen raped by a repeat offender says. “Like, what am I going to do? Call the cops? He was a cop.” And the fear that reporting the crime is pointless is often all too well-founded. “They knew the DAs. They knew the judges. They knew the safe houses. They knew how to testify in court. They knew how to make her look like a nut,” explains Penny Harrington, co-founder of the National Center for Women in Policing.

“How are you going to get anything to happen when he’s part of the system and when he threatens you and when you know he has a gun and … you know he can find you wherever you go?”

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Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director in charge of Editorial at Feministing. She is the author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick (HarperOne, March 2018). She has been a fellow at Mother Jones magazine and a columnist at Pacific Standard. Before become a full-time writer, she worked at the National Institute for Reproductive Health. A Minnesota native, she received her B.A. from Carleton College in 2008.

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Editorial.

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