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Data: High Rate of Sexual Abuse by Cops

by Christopher Zoukis

Police officers in America hold powerful positions. These heavily armed men and women make daily decisions that greatly affect the citizens with whom they interact. Unfortunately, some cops misuse the power granted to them by abusing the individuals they are tasked to protect and serve.

When such abuse takes the form of sexual assault and harassment, the reaction should be swift and severe. There is no room in an enlightened society for those who would use the badge and gun in order to engage in sexual misconduct. But abusive police officers benefit from unique protections offered by collective bargaining agreements, negotiated by powerful unions.

A recent Associated Press investigation indicates that sexual misconduct is among “the most prevalent type of complaint among law officers.” A 2010 Cato Institute report ranked harassment and abuse prevalent complaints against cops, second only to excessive force. And according to Splinter News, review of victim reports and media inquiries suggests that a police officer is busted for sexual abuse or harassment every five days.

The victims of sexual abuse and harassment at the hands of police are often uniquely vulnerable. A recent report cited by Splinter News found that 70 percent of abusive cops targeted crime victims, informants, motorists, and participants in youth programs. Timothy Mahr, a former cop who is now a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said that these numbers are not a fluke. “Officers will go after people they oftentimes don’t think are credible,” such as sex workers, drug addicts, and individuals with long criminal histories, observed Mahr.

Carefully choosing victims who are less likely to file a complaint keeps abusive cops on the street and preying on victims. But even when abusers are caught, they are protected by contracts that make disciplining rogue officers difficult. Powerful unions such as the Fraternal Order of Police sometimes even require that misconduct records be purged from an officer’s file after a period of between 18 months and five years. Provisions such as these keep serial abusers on the job and endangering the public.

A Reuters review of police contracts in 82 large cities confirmed that collective bargaining contracts are highly protective of police officers who are accused of misconduct. In 62 of the cities, officer misconduct reports are purged, sometimes regardless of the source of the complaint.

Stephen Rushin’s work also highlights the problem of contracts that allow serial abusers to continue preying on unsuspecting citizens. The Loyola School of Law researcher and criminologist reviewed 800 such contracts and found only one that specifically referenced discipline for sexual misconduct. According to Rushin, the more worrisome issue is the “pattern of similar behavior” that is lost when officer records are purged.

Even the International Association of Chiefs of Police (“IACP”) recognized the problem of sexual violence on the job in a 2011 report. The factors that the IACP listed as offering police officers “opportunities for sexual misconduct” include the position of power police officers hold, the vulnerability of victims, and the lack of oversight. The report made several recommendations, including the use of outside agencies to conduct “victim-centered” investigations into allegations of sexual impropriety.

But Mahr isn’t sure whether reform efforts by groups like the IACP will take, given the entrenched power of police unions.

“Will this moment result in a larger number of cases against the PD?” Mahr wonders. “If officers are selecting victims with respect to those who have ‘credibility’ issues, or if a woman was assaulted 8 years ago by the police? Probably not.” 


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