In a yearlong investigation of sexual misconduct by U.S. law enforcement, The Associated Press uncovered that at least 1,000 officers lost their badges and certification in a six-year period for rape and other forms of sexual assault; sex crimes that included possession of child pornography; or sexual misconduct such as asking for sex from citizens in exchange for “help” or leniency.
Of the 1000+, 550 were decertified for sexual assault, while the remaining 400+ fall into other types of offenses including sexting juveniles. Sex-related cases were the third-most common type of officer offense according to Phil Stinson’s research, behind violence and profit-motivated crimes.
According to Cato Institute reports released in 2009 and 2010, sex misconduct is actually the second highest complaint against officers, behind excessive force. Some predatory police were not charged in exchange for the officer simply giving up their certification.
In interviews with the Associated Press, lawyers and even police chiefs said that some departments also stay quiet about improprieties to limit liability, allowing bad officers to quietly resign, keep their certification and sometimes jump to other jobs. This fits perfectly into Ray Lewis’ explanation that police forces tend to resemble the character of the police commissioner, who is hand-picked by the mayor.
When examining what the now dishonored officers shared in common, the only real common denominator was their desire for power and an abuse of the privileged public trust that law enforcement officers are often given. Unfortunately, victims of abuse by police face an extra layer of the type of victim blaming that runs rampant in authoritarian circles: they can be targeted and otherwise denied investigative help or acknowledgment by other police.
“It’s happening probably in every law enforcement agency across the country,” said Chief Bernadette DiPino of the Sarasota Police Department in Florida, who studies the issue 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.”
Victims included unsuspecting motorists, schoolchildren ordered to raise their shirts in a supposed search for drugs, police interns taken advantage of, women with legal troubles who succumbed to performing sex acts for promised help, and prison inmates forced to have sex with guards.
A 2011 International Association of Chiefs of Police report on sexual misconduct questioned whether some conditions of the job may provide opportunities for abuse. Officers’ independence, power, off-hours and engagement with those perceived as less credible combine to give cover to predators, it said, and the bonds of loyalty between police (also known as the “blue line” ) can lead colleagues to shield offenders.
Diane Wetendorf, a retired counselor who started a support group in Chicago for victims of officers, said most of the women she counseled never reported their crimes – and many who did say they regretted it. She saw women whose homes came under surveillance and whose children were intimidated by police.
We need to consider that this problem is even bigger than it seems: no federal officers were included in the 1000+ count because the records reviewed only came from state police standards commissions. About 1/3 of the officers decertified were accused of incidents involving juveniles, which should understandably worry parents who tell their children to go the police if they feel unsafe.