In 35 states, it’s legal for cops to detain and have sex with someone in their custody. Is your state one of them?
Yesterday, Buzzfeed News published an investigative piece about Anna Chambers, a New York teenager pressing rape charges against Eddie Martins and Richard Hall, two members of the New York Police Department. Last fall, Anna was picked up by the two cops who told her two male friends to leave, handcuffed her, and led her into their van. According to Anna’s lawyer, the policemen ordered her to undress — and when they didn’t find drugs, they raped her.
It’s a stunning story of state violence — of cops using their guns, their badges, and their impunity to attack vulnerable women. Anna’s far from alone: sexual assault is the second most commonly reported form of police misconduct and brutality (after excessive force). A 2015 investigation found that over 1,000 officers across America have lost their badges because of sexual assault — and their report noted that number is “unquestionably an undercount” because many states, including New York, don’t keep state records of decertified cops. Further, sexual violence and police violence are highly underreported — meaning these number represent a mere fraction of the actual prevalence of police-perpetrated sexual violence.
You’d think this would have been an open-and-shut case. Anna’s forensic exam (commonly known as a ‘rape kit’) matched Martins’ and Hall’s DNA, and a security camera shows the detectives leaving her on the side of a street a quarter-mile from a police station. Anna says she repeatedly told the detectives no; the detectives say it was consensual.
To be clear, I completely believe Anna. But even if she hadn’t verbally said no, these two cops picked up a teenage girl, detained her in a police van, and then had sex with her while she was in their custody. They exploited the immense difference in power between an armed police officer and a civilian locked in the back of their car — a different in power that could easily coerce someone into saying yes to sexual contact they absolutely don’t want.
A person in police custody can’t give genuine consent, free from coercion. Not to armed police officers who have the power to arrest them if they say no.
But here’s the kicker: Buzzfeed’s investigation found that in 35 states, it’s legal for police to have sex with people in their custody.
The criminal legal system makes the people caught up in it vulnerable to sexual violence. That’s why, under New York state law, it’s illegal for prison guards to have sex with incarcerated people or for parole officers to have sex with the parolees they oversee. If you say no to your parole officer, they might send you back to prison. If you say no to a prison guard, they might put you in solitary confinement. Police officers are no different — if you’re in the back of a cop’s car, you are at their mercy. The police shouldn’t be able to exploit that power differential to force themselves on vulnerable women yet, in most states in America, they can do so and face no legal consequences.
Thanks to the #MeToo movement, long overdue legislation to fight harassment and violence is finally gaining steam. Still, even now, few headlines and legislators are tackling the problem of police sexual violence, perhaps because its victims are mostly poor women, especially women of color. It’s about time for our righteous rage to tackle the Eddie Martins, Richard Halls, and Daniel Holtzclaws of the world, who just like Harvey Weinstein, grossly abuse their power to abuse women.
Outraged by Anna’s story, New York City Council Member Mark Treyger has proposed a bill that would prohibit police officers from having sex with anyone in their custody. Bills like his should be introduced — and passed — in every state on this map.