On Thursday, former Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw was found guilty of rape and sexual-assault charges, including sexual battery and forcible oral sodomy. Holtzclaw, who is Asian American and white, was accused of attacking 13 black women over the course of his three years on the police force. An all-white jury has recommended that he be sentenced to 263 years in prison.
Holtzclaw’s victims ranged in age from 17 to 57. The eldest victim, a 57-year-old grandmother whom Holtzclaw assaulted during a traffic stop, reported the offense, which kicked off a broader investigation. As The Washington Post reports, several characteristics set this woman, now identified in the media as Janie Liggins, apart from the rest: “She was not from the mostly low-income neighborhood where he patrolled. She had no criminal record. She was in a position to believe that if she went to police, something would be done.”
Many of the other women Holtzclaw assaulted had histories of contact with law enforcement—a detail that his defense attorney played up during the trial in an effort to destroy their credibility. Holtzclaw had figured these women, including a 17-year-old girl, wouldn’t have credibility in the first place and used their outstanding warrants and unpaid tickets to coerce them into sex acts. When asked, those victimized said they never considered contacting police about the attacks for an obvious reason: Holtzclaw was the police. “I didn’t call them,” one woman is reported to have said during a preliminary hearing last year. “I didn’t think anyone would believe the allegations that I was making.”
As an Associated Press investigation published last month found, Holtzclaw’s crimes are not isolated incidents. A review of records from 41 states and related research revealed that sexual misconduct is one of the most common complaints brought against police. According to the investigation, between 2009 and 2014, “550 officers 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. Some 440 officers lost their badges for other sex offenses, such as possessing child pornography, or for sexual misconduct that included being a peeping Tom, sexting juveniles or having on-duty intercourse.”
Efforts to play on stereotypes about who is likely to engage in criminal behavior and who is credible were on display during the Holtzclaw trial. A reporter for Ebony pointed out that, while Holtzclaw was allowed to come to court dressed in street clothes, the accusers, who were at the time of the trial being held in police custody for various offenses, “appeared in court wearing orange jailhouse scrubs, handcuffs and leg irons.” In a move reminiscent of the skewering of Rachel Jeantel by George Zimmerman’s attorney, Holtzclaw’s lawyer “used the women’s lack of language skills against them, such as using the wrong verb tense, to suggest they were not telling the truth instead of simply not knowing the correct tense to use when trying to pin them down on specific dates, [Grace] Franklin [of OKC Artists for Justice] says…. ‘A rape case is always difficult. A survivor is always on trial. When you add race, poverty and lack of education and contact with the system, it’s an even more brutal assault to watch.’”
Some observers suggested that members of the media added insult to injury by failing to cover the trial with the attention that they would have given a case involving non-black women victims. “Where is the uproar?” asked Cosmopolitan’s Treva Lindsay. But as the AP report makes clear, there are unfortunately many opportunities for media to cover the targeting and assault of marginalized women by law enforcement. And perhaps there’s more story to follow in Oklahoma City. As the father of one of the victims reportedly said today, there’s a need to look into the role that Holtzclaw’s colleagues on the police force played. “I don’t understand how this officer could operate without this going noticed by someone above him,” he said. “We are not being rocked to sleep because of this verdict.”