In light of the contentious debate around defunding the police, Andi Zeisler wrote on Twitter June 4: “I’m seeing people ask things like ‘But if there are no police who will go after RAPISTS???’ and well I have some very bad news for those folks.” She then linked to an article about a 2013 study showing U.S. cops charged with more than 400 forcible rapes over nine years.
The tweet sparked a thread detailing the long, painful history of sexual misconduct by American law enforcement. The ACLU cites a study that surveyed 1,000 New York City youth, finding “two out of five women had been sexually harassed by police officers.” Another 2015 report from the Buffalo News said that during the preceding 10 years, an officer faced a sexual misconduct case at least every five days. Those exploited were often students, young people in youth work programs, and victims of domestic abuse— community members most vulnerable to unequal power dynamics. Nearly all the perpetrators were men.
Police officers abusing their power for sexual gain is no revelation. In 2011, veteran officer Michael Garcia assaulted 17-year-old intern Diana Guerrero, who was shadowing the Las Cruces Police Department in New Mexico. Garcia had been working in the child abuse and sex crimes investigations unit for 15 years. He offered to bring Guerrero along in his vehicle to observe a crime scene. Although Garcia had a history of sexual misconduct, his previous actions had gone unpunished by the force. In a taped confession, he said, “The badge gets you the p—sy and the p—sy gets your badge, you know?” Guerrero had once aspired to be an officer. In court she said, “I trusted the number one person who I never imagined would harm me.”
In recent days, two women alleged on social media that a Louisville police officer involved in the shooting of Breonna Taylor drove them home while they were intoxicated; one said she was sexually assaulted by him while she was unconscious, the other said he made sexual advances before she ran away. Many more sexual assault reports against police remain invisible and unchallenged. Powerful protection systems have been enshrined to ensure that many cases against law enforcement officials are handled internally. This rings especially true in New York, which has some of the most restrictive transparency laws in the nation. Developed in 1976 under the New York Civil Rights Law, a statute known as 50-a has shielded officers’ disciplinary investigations from the public. Because the NYPD does not disclose reports of sexual misconduct against it, the city’s true statistics on officer sexual assault are nearly impossible to access. 50-a also blocks survivors from knowing if their abuser has a history of violence.
On June 9 in a historic ruling, both houses of the New York State Assembly repealed 50-a as part the larger Safer NY Act, a package of bills that seeks to increase police transparency. Governor Cuomo tweeted he will sign the legislation when it arrives at his desk.
Many New Yorkers weren’t familiar with 50-a until opposition signs surfaced at protests. As public awareness increased over the last few weeks, the obscure law moved to the forefront of the political conversation. “Anyone who says they want to see police discipline move more quickly, they’re right,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a press conference early this week. “Anyone who says we need 50-a repealed in Albany, they’re right, and I think it’s going to happen in the next day or two.”
In 2018, BuzzFeed obtained leaked NYPD files showing that hundreds of officers were allowed to keep their jobs after committing serious crimes, including sexual abuse. The article stated that several worked in schools: “Andrew Bailey was found guilty of touching a female student on the thigh and kissing her on the cheek while she was sitting in his car. In a school parking lot, while he was supposed to be on duty, Lester Robinson kissed a woman, removed his shirt, and began to remove his pants.” In each case, the police commissioner assigned officers a short dismissal probation period, during which they were still paid and endured few visible ramifications.
Women, especially black women, are often overlooked in the discussion surrounding police brutality— although they are some of the most vulnerable to injustice, according to an African American Policy Forum (AAPF) report titled “Say Her Name.” The paper states, “Historically the American legal system has not protected black women from sexual assault, thereby creating opportunities for law enforcement officials to sexually abuse them with the knowledge that they are unlikely to suffer any penalties for their actions.” What does one do when those who are supposed to protect are the perpetrators of abuse?
The narrative of police brutality is a largely male-dominated one. As protesters gathered across the nation to demand justice for George Floyd, some advocates worried Breonna Taylor’s name had been forgotten in the Black Lives Matter movement. They took to social media using the #SayHerName hashtag— but Andrea Ritchie of the Barnard Center for Research on Women noted the phrase was co-opted to #SayHisName. In 2018 an article in the Huffington Post also contended the disparity: “Black women bear a double burden ― carrying the weight of a weaponized skin color and the invisibility of a silenced gender.”
The system seems set up to silence victims. On June 2, The Daily aired an episode titled “The Systems that Protect the Police.” Criminal justice reporter Shaila Dewan of the New York Times asserted the power of police unions. “They’re often led by the old-school, law-and-order individuals who are often the biggest opponent of reform-minded chiefs who come in,” she stated. Police union contracts make it difficult to oust officers who have been flagged for misconduct. Dewan also notes that “police are often policing themselves,” meaning they investigate the complaints against their peers and decide on repercussions internally: “They tend to be charitable towards their own.”
Retired Albany police chief Brendan Cox called for repeal of 50-a in an op-ed in January. “I once believed that 50-a protected good cops from frivolous and misleading questioning by defense attorneys looking to do nothing more than mislead a jury about honest police work,” he wrote. “Or, worse yet, muddy up a good cop’s name in the media. I know now that what 50-a actually does is lump the honest, hard-working police officers in with those officers who have betrayed the public trust by allowing their misconduct to be shielded by outdated legislation.” He stated that hiding misconduct records has given the public reason to be suspicious. “When there is a lack of police accountability, we lose legitimacy in the eyes of those we serve.”
More questions regarding accountability surfaced last week as NYPD officers faced public scrutiny for their forceful behavior at protests. The marches provided a public forum to witness police abuse, as seen in one viral video of an officer throwing a woman to the ground in Brooklyn. Now after four years of organizing, advocacy groups finally saw 50-a gain traction in Albany. Last week, 85 organizations, including Safe Horizon and the Women & Justice Project, penned a letter to the New York State Assembly urging for the repeal of a law that “allows abusive officers to continue to act with impunity.” On Instagram, users instructed newly-concerned citizens to text a bot that contacts local representatives, showing support for repeal and a demand for transparency. Rihanna, Ariana Grande, Megan Thee Stallion, and others in the music industry also signed the petition.
Unsurprisingly, the repeal faced strong opposition from police unions. “We’ve been left out of the conversation, we’ve been vilified — it’s disgusting,” said Mike O’Meara, president of the New York Police Benevolent Association, . On the floor of the State Senate, assemblymember Diana Richardson of Brooklyn said, “Anyone who is opposing this legislation, the question we pose is, what do you have to hide? Nurses, doctors, attorneys all have to release misconduct records. Too many have lost their lives to law enforcement with histories of abuse.”
Bill sponsor Sen. Jamaal Bailey (D-Bronx) affirmed in his floor speech: “The silver lining on this incredibly dark cloud is that the sun is finally starting to shine on injustice. Maybe it’s the unmistakable, and in my opinion disputable, video evidence that we saw a live murder on TV, but it’s done something to the consciousness of America.” The repeal of 50-a is only the beginning in the movement for extensive reform; yet, it’s a hopeful win for survivors of sexual violence at the hands of police. As the city has seen this week, there is power in protest, action transpiring from accountability in the midst of this cultural reckoning. Only time will tell if the threat of exposure and ramification is enough to reduce police misconduct— but what’s certain is the people are watching.