Emily, a 23-year-old student and waitress in Massachusetts, is still disturbed by a memory of being stopped by two police officers while driving a couple of years ago. Pulled over for running a stop sign, Emily had come to the attention of the police because her car had a smashed window, which she explained was because she was returning home from a party where someone had broken into several cars parked outside, including hers.
The cops seemed suspicious of Emily’s story and asked her to step out of the vehicle to conduct a sobriety test and search her person and vehicle. One of them immediately gave Emily a “weird vibe,” and proceeded to search her in a way that made her feel “extremely uncomfortable.” “I was wearing a skintight spandex body suit that wouldn’t have left any room to conceal something on my person,” she explains, “and I wasn’t posing any threat.” The legal basis of the search was never explained to Emily, and she felt it was unnecessary, creepy and lingering. “It wasn’t as quick as I thought it would be,” she continues. “I don’t think he needed to pat me down as thoroughly as he did.”
As if the creepy pat down wasn’t enough, Emily was horrified to find that when she got home and checked Facebook, the cop who searched her had sent her a friend request. “He got my name off my ID and actually searched for me,” she explains incredulously. “I was angry because it felt like an abuse of power.”
The recent wave of Black Lives Matter protests has drawn attention to the way in which cops routinely use unjustified and sometimes sadistic violence against the people they arrest, and there is a renewed fervor to hold the police accountable for the harms they perpetrate. But there’s still relatively little discussion about how often the police use sexual violence to harass women and other vulnerable groups. An investigation by the Cato Institute found that sexual misconduct is the second most common category of complaints against police officers (following complaints about excessive force), and that “sexual assault rates are significantly higher for police when compared to the general population.”
Cops specifically target young women, too. The same Cato Institute investigation found that more than half of the cases of serious sexual misconduct by officers involved minor victims, confirming a finding by the Police Professionalism Initiative (PPI) that “police sexual abuse of women includes a disturbing pattern of police officer exploitation of teenage girls.” Preying on teenage girls is part of a “common theme,” the PPI found, in which police officers use “their law enforcement authority to take advantage of vulnerable people,” including “persons stopped for traffic violations, prostitutes and teenage girls.”
That the police also target other vulnerable groups such as trans women, Black women, Indigenous women and other women of color for sexual harassment and assault is well-established. “Police sexual misconduct specifically targets victims whose calculated risk is based on their vulnerability, the likelihood that they wouldn’t be believed if they did come forward,” Philip Stinson, a professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, told the Crime Report. “We have sex workers who are constantly harassed … and you also have the driving-while-female scenarios, where an officer stops someone to flirt with them, gets their phone number, gets their name, all the way up to violence and rape.”
Carey, a 37-year-old health-care administrator, remembers being caught drinking underage by an undercover cop at a venue in Florida. The officer took her by the hand and led her to his vehicle, where he questioned her. Carey says he asked whether she had a boyfriend, which she thought was irrelevant, but she confirmed that she did anyway. “Then he said I had two options: I could get in trouble for drinking underage, or give him my number and go on a date with him,” she tells me. The cop was in his early 30s; she was 19 at the time.
Feeling like she had no real choice, Carey agreed to the date. “He complained about his ex-wife the whole time,” she continues. “Luckily I was able to blow him off without repercussions, but I was very careful about going downtown after that. At the time, though, I just felt like I had no other option. Now, I understand it was a huge abuse of power, and he was taking advantage of drunk young women in a college town.”
Police officers use sexual harassment and assault as tools to establish dominance, humiliate and control citizens, and force arrestees to comply with their demands. Ellen, a pseudonymous woman in the Māori community based in New Zealand, says that she was groped by a cop during a blockade against an arms’ dealers convention. “One of the tactics they used was pushing against the line of blockaders and then putting their hands under the clothes of women, presumably to try to get us to let go of the people on either side of us so we could be dragged out of the line and arrested,” she explains. “Cops definitely use sexual violence as a tactic, [it’s] part of how they try to bludgeon brown people and communities into submission.”
Cops also act opportunistically to leverage their power in exchange for sexual favors. A report by the Philadelphia Inquirer found that some officers use the “power of their badge” to extort sex from vulnerable women, deliberately abusing their position of trust in horrendous ways. For example, one officer in Pennsylvania visited a pregnant woman in the hospital who had attempted suicide and groped her breasts and then masturbated, while another in North Carolina continually propositioned and stalked two domestic violence victims who had come to him for help, claiming that dating domestic violence victims was “like shooting fish in a barrel.”
Jesse, a 37-year-old nonprofit administrator in Kansas City, remembers being sexually humiliated by a cop who pulled her over as a 16-year-old while she and her boyfriend were driving to a rave in the country. They were searched for a reason that wasn’t explained to them, and when the officer looked in Jesse’s bag and found a pair of her underwear inside of it, he pulled them out, rubbed them with his fingers and suggestively asked Jesse whether she “forgot to put these on.” “I could tell he was targeting me and my boyfriend at the same time, like I was a proxy for some depraved power trip,” she says. “I was disgusted and terrified.”
Both her personal experience and the incidents of police violence she sees in the news have caused her to have a total lack of faith in the police. “It enrages me that perverted bigots have state-sponsored power to sexually harass teenagers and murder people at their whim,” she says. “And when they do, we have no recourse.”
“This was my moment where I started to understand how immediately you can be reduced to powerlessness,” she adds. “It eroded my trust in cops instantaneously, and I’ve hated them ever since.”