Police Sexual Violence Is Hidden in Plain SightRoundup
tags: violence, sexual assault, Police, human rights, womens history
Anne Gray Fischer is an assistant professor of women’s history at the University of Texas at Dallas. Her research focuses on gender, race, and law enforcement.
When photographs of Brett Hankison, one of the officers who murdered Breonna Taylor on March 13, began to make the rounds on social media, at least five women recognized his face. He was the same officer, they said, who had offered them a safe ride home and then sexually harassed or assaulted them. Margo Borders wrote on Facebook that Hankison “drove me home in uniform, in his marked car, invited himself into my apartment and sexually assaulted me while I was unconscious.” Borders did not at the time report the rape because she feared retaliation: “[H]e had the upper hand because he was a police officer. Who do you call when the person who assaulted you is a police officer? Who were they going to believe? I knew it wouldn’t be me.”
The pursuit of justice for Breonna Taylor has been absorbed into a movement driven primarily by the killings of Black men, her name honored among calls to say their names. But there remains an urgent need specifically to say her name. That is—and as the case of Hankison shows—we miss a crucial component of police violence if we only think of it as defined by something that happens to Black men, or as something that happens to Black people regardless of gender. Women’s experiences with police reveal distinct and often overlooked forms of gender-specific violence that are baked into the structure of law enforcement and that need be addressed in those terms as part of any effort to dismantle structural racism.
Police sexual violence is hidden in plain sight. Grossly underreported and understudied, the scant research that does exist reveals that sexual violence at the hands of police is endemic to law enforcement, and that women of color—cis and trans—are especially vulnerable to it. This violence is possible in part because of the extreme power disparity that exists between targeted women and police, which at once enables such violence and shields officers from consequences. But police sexual violence is also possible because it is a legally sanctioned tactic of everyday policing. Women’s bodies are the strategic terrain on which police gain evidence, secure informants, and impose their authority in the name of “public safety” and “border security.”
Indeed, rape is considered a legal and legitimate tool of law enforcement. For example, in prostitution-related misdemeanor policing, undercover police routinely entrap women into engaging in sexual acts to gain “evidence” that they are doing sex work. Because consent is obtained under false pretenses, this practice amounts to legal sexual assault. “It’s incredibly traumatic to be tricked into having sex with someone who stops in the middle and puts you in handcuffs and takes you against your will to be locked up in a jail cell,” one activist said. “Women have told me that years later they still have PTSD symptoms when they see a police car.” Sexual “contact” by police officers to enforce morals laws is legal in all fifty states; when lawmakers in Alaska tried to ban police sexual contact, the Anchorage Police Department quashed the bill.
How did we get to the point where sexual assault is considered valid, necessary police work? The answer lies in the origin story of modern police, and specifically in the history of the discretionary enforcement of public order laws. When we interrogate this past, a central contradiction of modern policing becomes clear: the same violent practices that are now widely considered abuses of power—and which reformists believe can be cleansed from police departments—are also official policies of urban policing.
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