Police officer Daniel Holtzclaw worked the evening shift, from four in the afternoon until two in the morning, patrolling the northeastern part of Oklahoma City. Between February and June he allegedly sexually assaulted at least seven women while on duty, including a 57-year-old grandmother who says she was forced to give Holtzclaw oral sex after he pulled her over. According to police chief Bill Citty, Holtzclaw coerced the women, all of whom were black, into sexual acts by threatening to arrest them.
“They’ve pretty much got power in the palm of their hand. And it’s your word against theirs,” one resident of the neighborhood Holtzclaw patrolled told a reporter. Another said that rumors of the assaults had been circulating for weeks.
News of Holtzclaw’s arrest last Thursday was overshadowed by the police brutality occurring in Ferguson, Missouri. The killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, and the crackdown on people protesting his death highlighted endemic problems of racial profiling, brutality and militarization within American law enforcement. Several writers pointed out after Brown’s death that women of color are often left out of these stories of police violence. Sometimes that violence is lethal. In many other cases it’s sexual in nature.
“It’s a huge problem,” said Philip Stinson, a professor at Bowling Green State University and the principle investigator for a Department of Justice–funded research project on police integrity, about sexual assault by police officers. “There are many opportunities for someone, if they were a predator, to engage in crimes of sexual violence that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to do because of the power and authority they have [as a police officer].”
It’s hard to tell exactly how big the problem is, because few people are collecting data. Researchers have to rely on arrest reports and press accounts, which leave out unreported or unprosecuted cases. But even that limited evidence suggests sexual assault is a significant issue in police forces, as The American Prospect and Truthout have reported. According to the Cato Institute, more than 9 percent of reports of police misconduct in 2010 involved sexual abuse, making it the second-most reported form of misconduct, after the use of excessive force. Comparing that data to FBI crime statistics indicates that “sexual assault rates are significantly higher for police when compared to the general population.”