Though most Americans are probably unaware of it, in most states it’s not illegal for police officers to have sex with people in their custody. Nationally, 35 states allow a strange legal loophole where cops can claim a sexual encounter between them and their detainee is consensual to avoid rape or assault charges.
A recent Buzzfeed report brought attention to the case of 18-year-old Brooklyn native Anna Doe, who was allegedly raped while handcuffed during a traffic stop.
“Inside, Anna said the detectives took turns raping her in the backseat as the van cruised the dark streets and she sat handcuffed, crying and repeatedly telling them ‘No.’ Between assaults, she said, the van pulled over so the cops should switch drivers,” reports Buzzfeed. The details are indisputably gory, and semen evidence from Anna’s subsequent rape kit identified detectives Eddie Martins and Richard Hall as the perpetrators.
But the case isn’t as clear-cut as it should be because, in a twist that defies all logic, New York is one of the many states that bafflingly allows cops to claim to have had consensual sex with people they’re arresting. And even a simple scan of police sexual misconduct databases shows that cops having sex while on the clock, or using their power to assault vulnerable people, isn’t uncommon. In New York alone, where Anna Doe was raped, there are countless examples. In 2007, Officer Fernand Clerge was convicted of molesting women while on duty, in uniform. In 2006, Officer Andrew Johnson drove a teenager home as a part of his duties. Later that night, he showed up at the teen’s house waving a gun, trying to force himself on her. In 2008, Sergeant David Rodriguez arrested a 17-year-old’s boyfriend, then returned to the scene to allegedly rape the teenage girl, though her account differs from his.
The accounts are numerous: school resource officers having inappropriate sexual conduct with teenagers while on the job, law enforcement officers and traffic enforcement agents forcing sex workers to have sex with them in exchange for evading arrest. It’s all completely unbelievable — and mind you, only some of the officers logged in databases like these receive any sort of jail time for their sexual misconduct and assault. Many are fired or choose to voluntarily resign.
The Associated Press tracked sexual misconduct by police officers from 2009 to 2014, using data from 41 states, and found that 550 cops were “decertified for sexual assault, including rape and sodomy, sexual shakedowns in which citizens were extorted into performing favors to avoid arrest, or gratuitous pat-downs.” 440 officers lost their badges for less serious sexual misconduct issues, like having sex while on duty or sexting underage people — and that report only contained data from four-fifths of states, excluding the District of Columbia. Imagine the many, many sex crimes that haven’t been reported.
Buzzfeed also reports that some states — namely Oregon, Alaska, and Arizona — have worked to close this loophole of discretion given to police officers and hold them to the same standard that corrections officers are held to (at least legally, if not always in practice). But, for many years, this loophole has festered in the dark, as very few people have known about it, and very few people have felt comfortable speaking out against law enforcement corruption. Perhaps in the era of Black Lives Matter and Me Too, these things will change.
It should be common sense: there’s no such thing as consent if you’re detained, handcuffed, and fear you might be going to jail. As the Me Too movement brings all kinds of women into the fold of those who’ve been hurt or degraded by men in positions of power, we shouldn’t forget about the victims of abuse by law enforcement and corrections officers.
It might never be politically popular to hold those in power accountable, but it’s certainly getting easier to do so as the breaches of trust between law enforcement and citizenry become so glaringly obvious.