Scores of women are sexually assaulted by on-duty officers each year. Most departments are doing little to stop it
Police chiefs have long known that officer sexual misconduct is a problem. But an Al Jazeera America investigation found that very few departments have followed basic guidelines designed to prevent it.Edel Rodriguez for Al Jazeera America
By: Steven Yoder/Al Jazerra America
It was 1 a.m. on a Monday in March 2013 when Bronx resident Erica Noonan, 31, saw flashing blue lights in her mirror. She was driving home and figured it had to be a mistake. She hadn’t been speeding, she says.
Carlos Becker, the officer who stopped her, says otherwise. Not only had she been driving too fast, but she’d changed lanes without signaling and had run a red light, and her breath smelled of alcohol. He administered a breath test and then arrested her for drunk driving. (Noonan denies that any of Becker’s reasons for stopping her were true — she hadn’t had anything to drink and broke no traffic laws, according to her lawyer.)
Noonan started crying. She’d never been arrested before, and a DWI would put in jeopardy her job as a special education teacher in New York’s public school system.
What happened next scared her more. As he was putting on her handcuffs, Becker told Noonan that she “looked prettier in person than she did in her car,” according to a federal civil suit Noonan filed. Then, as he put her in the back seat of his squad car, she says, he put his hand on her left breast.
Becker drove Noonan to the precinct house and booked her. When she told him she needed to use the restroom, he allegedly made her keep the door open, while he watched. As he later confessed to a police investigator, he then used his phone to film her lower body from the rear, zooming in on her buttocks because “she had a hot body.”
Noonan was released and arraigned for a court date on a criminal DWI charge. Before she left, Becker instructed her to call him. “I can help you out. I will speak to the district attorney for you,” he allegedly said. Noonan took that as a threat — if she didn’t, he’d make sure she was found guilty.
She hired a lawyer, and when she told him what Becker allegedly did, he offered her controversial advice: to start communicating with the officer by text, apparently to start a paper trail that she could later use in a complaint or a lawsuit.
That strategy, it turned out, put her in even more danger. Over the next eight days, Noonan and Becker exchanged nearly 600 text messages, during which Becker repeatedly asked her out: “I tried to see u over the weekend because I desperately wanted to go out … I want to start something serious with u,” he texted on March 19.
Noonan agreed to meet with Becker to discuss the case. He picked her up and took her to a sushi restaurant. After they ate and talked, she told him she wanted to go home, according to the lawsuit. Instead he took her to a bar. He ordered her a drink, and she consumed it. Then she started to feel groggy and blacked out.
NYPD highway cop Carlos Becker leaves the Bronx Courthouse after a hearing on Friday, July 26, 2013. He appeared in court on allegations that he had an inappropriate and possibly corrupt relationship with a woman he arrested for drunk driving. Enid Alvarez / NY Daily News / Getty Images
When she temporarily returned to consciousness, she says, Becker was putting her in his car. When she next came to, he was on top of her in a house she didn’t recognize.
The next morning, she awoke gasping for air. Soon after, she realized that she was in Becker’s house, in the Long Island suburb of Hempstead. Her left eye was bruised and swollen shut — a fact confirmed by hospital photos.
Becker was in the living room watching TV. Noonan told him she couldn’t find her phone, so Becker called it. It picked up and then recorded what came next: Noonan asked Becker what happened, and he told her that she’d fallen. When she asked why he hadn’t gotten her medical attention, he replied, “I didn’t know what to do. … You fell. …You fell like two times.”
Noonan went to an emergency room. Medical staff found she had tearing and bruising on one thigh and scratches everywhere — her chest and breasts, feet, thighs, and stomach. They administered a rape kit and later determined that DNA linked to Becker was in her underwear.
A hospital social worker called the police to report the alleged rape, and the New York Police Department’s Internal Affairs Bureau and the Bronx County and Nassau County district attorney’s offices all launched investigations.
Becker was later indicted by the Bronx County district attorney — but only for filming Noonan while she was in custody. A spokesperson for the Bronx district attorney says that the office couldn’t prosecute Becker for the rape because it allegedly took place in Becker’s house in Nassau County. A Bronx judge dismissed the charge because while the filming was “insulting, demeaning and disrespectful to Ms. Noonan,” it didn’t rise to the level of a crime. He suggested that the NYPD discipline Becker for violating department policy.
A spokesperson for the Nassau County district attorney’s office declined to comment on why charges were not brought for the alleged rape. And the NYPD didn’t respond to a question about the conclusions of its internal affairs investigation.
Last May, a Bronx court confirmed that Noonan had done nothing wrong to precipitate her arrest, dismissing the DWI charges against her. After the alleged assault, she began taking medication for HIV and STDs, got tested for HIV every six months, and started seeing a therapist. She has paid lawyers at least $10,000.
(Becker has an unlisted phone number and didn’t respond to two letters sent to his address requesting comment.)
If Noonan’s account is true, Becker’s actions might be written off as a bizarre case of a cop gone bad. But recent investigations suggest it’s not uncommon for on-duty male officers to sexually assault, abuse and harass female civilians.
Erica Noonan, in a photograph taken at the hospital.
In perhaps the highest-profile recent case, former Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw was convicted in December on 18 counts of sexual assault in attacks on 13 women. His story was one of several described in a yearlong AP investigation published in November that identified about 1,000 cases over a six-year period in which officers had their badges revoked for on-duty sexual misconduct such as rape, sodomy or consensual sex. In another newspaper investigation published in November, the Buffalo News identified 700 cases in the last 10 years in which officers were involved in sexual abuse or sexual misconduct related to their police work. The paper found 105 “new and credible” cases in 2014 alone.
Daniel Holtzclaw is led from a courtroom in Oklahoma City, Friday, Oct. 30, 2015. He was convicted of sexually assaulting 13 women while on duty.Sue Ogrocki / AP
While media exposés in recent months have highlighted the pervasiveness of police sexual misconduct, the problem isn’t new — and few departments appear to be doing anything to address it. In 2011, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, a national leadership and advocacy group, produced a series of recommendations designed to change a culture that the IACP noted may encourage some officers to sexually abuse, harass and assault those they’re sworn to protect.
But an Al Jazeera America investigation found that only three departments of 20 surveyed appear to have taken any of the recommended steps for curbing sexual misconduct. And some female officers attest to a police culture that may encourage such behavior.
Further, departments put themselves at risk of expensive lawsuits by not having policies in place, putting taxpayers on the hook for millions of dollars in payouts. And the AP investigation found that a broken system of laws and background checks allowed some officers accused of sexual misconduct to get jobs in departments where new allegations would later surface, including rape.
“I think that police chiefs and administrators have been pretty slow to react to this issue,” says former police officer Tim Maher, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and leading expert on police sexual misconduct. “I’m disappointed that more are not making a proactive effort to deal with it.”
In addition to Noonan, at least four other women have current federal lawsuits against the NYPD for alleged rapes, other types of sexual assault or sexual harassment by on-duty cops, according to media reports and informationcompiled by New York’s Legal Aid Society. And there’s evidence that lesser forms of sexual coercion are prevalent within the NYPD. Last April, NYPD officer Delfin Lantigua pleaded guilty to soliciting sex and cash from a woman who wanted a job with the department. In May, the city paid a $45,000 settlement to a woman who at age 17 was arrested and held overnight after she resisted officer Jose Peinan’s flirtatious advances. And in June, NYPD officer Luis Gutierrez was convicted of, while on duty, trying to pay for sex with an undercover detective who was posing as a 16-year-old girl.
The NYPD did not respond to repeated inquiries about whether it has implemented the IACP recommendations.
The officers in these cases face a range of consequences. Some get jailtime. Others are fired or transferred or have their pay docked. It’s unclear whether Becker was ever disciplined — a December 2013 New York Daily News storynoted that he’d been stripped of his badge and gun and was no longer performing enforcement duties. The NYPD didn’t respond to a question about whether he’s still on the force or faced any consequences. Joann Squillace, Noonan’s lawyer, believes no disciplinary proceedings were ever brought, reasoning that if they had been, the department would have contacted Noonan to serve as a witness.
Generally, police departments can discipline only on-duty behavior. But off-duty behavior also falls under their purview if it involves something illegal or if police officers use their position to further the commission of a crime, as was alleged in Becker’s case.
Police leaders acknowledge that these incidents undermine the foundation of trust on which good police work is built. The IACP, which produced its 2011 report with a grant from the federal Office on Violence Against Women, recommended changes in police departments nationwide. “The problem of sexual misconduct by officers,” the report warned, “warrants the full attention of law enforcement leadership.”
The group called on departments to establish detailed zero-tolerance policies for sexual misconduct on the force and to conduct rigorous training on the policy. Those policies, the IACP said, should include thoroughly screening new hires for past sex offenses and misconduct, ensuring the protection of whistleblowers, and requiring officers who know of sexual misconduct on the force to report it.
But the IACP doesn’t track how many departments have heeded its summons to action, and it appears only a minority have. Of the 20 departments contacted for this story, 13 have no policy, three didn’t respond to multiple requests, and one said it would not comment. (The departments contacted were chosen for their diversity in geographic location and size.) Only three do have a policy. (Houston’s department, one of the 13 without a policy, did do a one-time training on sexual misconduct, which it may repeat as circumstances require, says a spokesman.) (Neither the IACP nor the Office on Violence Against Women responded to multiple requests for comment.)
Even departments that have had multiple confirmed cases of police sexual misconduct in the last five years have no policy. The Riviera Beach Police Department in Florida, which confirmed that it has no policy, is investigating officer Charles Hoeffer after a blind woman accused him of twice sexually assaulting her in her home in March and April 2014 while he was on duty. In 2011, an officer from that same department was convicted of offering to throw out a woman’s traffic tickets if she agreed to have sex with him.
The department has no sexual misconduct policy because “all department personnel are trained and expected to exhibit professional conduct at all times in all situations,” department spokesperson Rose Anne Brown told Al Jazeera America.
The Riviera Beach Police Department in Florida is investigating Charles Hoeffer after he was accused of twice sexually assaulting a woman while on duty. The department does not have a policy around police sexual misconduct.
The Chicago Police Department also lacks a policy, though at least 14 citizens have filed complaints about alleged criminal sexual misconduct by the department’s officers since 2011. That’s according to data from the Citizens Police Data Project, a collaboration of the University of Chicago Law School, journalists and others.
Andrea Ritchie, a Soros Justice Fellow and New York-based police misconduct attorney, is conducting her own study of police departments to find out how many have sexual misconduct policies. Of the 28 agencies that have responded to her, 10 had one. Even then, none of those policies are as explicit as the IACP guidelines would urge, she says. In some cases, they consist of a single line noting that on-duty sexual misconduct is prohibited but not defining what constitutes misconduct.
That suggests few chiefs are willing to make a priority of stopping on-duty sexual misconduct. Maher says there are several reasons. Among them: the types and amounts of sexual misconduct vary across departments, so some chiefs think that if they haven’t seen cases in their department, the problem doesn’t exist.
But sexual misconduct is a hidden behavior, so chiefs usually don’t know if it’s happening among their officers, says Maher — offenders don’t tell anyone, fellow officers often don’t report it, and victims are reluctant to report. “They’re being naive if they think it doesn’t exist at all in their department,” says Maher.
In fact, women who come forward to allege they were mistreated by police are something of an anomaly — most survivors of police sexual assault likely don’t pursue charges. In the general population, fewer than a third of rapes are reported to the police.
When the assailant is a cop, cases are even less likely to be reported because those targeted are often vulnerable. “Often perpetrators pick victims who are afraid to report, or if they do they won’t be seen as credible,” says Jennifer Marsh of the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, an advocacy group. Often they’re sex workers or those involved in substance abuse. “The cop will say, ‘If you report me, then I’m going to report that you were breaking X, Y or Z law,’ ” says Marsh.
For those who do report, the process can be exhausting and humiliating, says Ritchie, the police misconduct attorney. Complaints are referred to the police internal affairs bureau, and the tone that investigators take is much the same as if they were investigating a crime, she says. “They’re often disbelieved because the internal affairs officers are investigating fellow officers,” Ritchie says. “I can’t tell you the number of women who’ve come to me with a complaint, and when I tell them what they’re up against, they just say no.”
When women do proceed with their claims, prosecutors face long odds in getting convictions. No data are available about the proportion of cops found guilty in sexual-assault cases. Overall, fewer than a third of those arrested for rape end up with a felony conviction.
That proportion may be lower in cases involving officers. “Juries are overwhelmingly in favor of law enforcement,” says St. Louis civil rights attorney Bevis Schock, who has represented female survivors of police sexual assaults. “Defendants win the vast majority of these cases.”
Misogyny is widespread inside some police departments. In one 2010 survey, thirteen of 20 female officers said the male-dominated police culture plays a large role in cops’ sexual abuse and harassment of civilians.Edel Rodriguez for Al Jazeera America
As examples of abuse and harassment mount, there’s evidence that, at least in some cases, misogyny inside departments may be at their root. For a 2010 study in the journal Women & Criminal Justice, Maher interviewed 20 female officers from 10 departments. Fifteen reported having been sexually harassed by male officers or supervisors. Only two had reported the harassment — one was then transferred, and the other said she was ostracized by other officers as a result. Others who didn’t report said they feared the consequences of doing so.
Thirteen of the 20 said the male-dominated police culture plays a significant role in cops’ sexual abuse and harassment of civilians. On average, they estimated that almost half of all cops have participated in sexual misconduct on the job. Nine of the 20 told Maher that they thought most officers would not report an incident involving even serious misconduct by a fellow officer, like rape.
“It’s a minority of officers who do this kind of thing,” says Penny Harrington, former police chief for Portland, Oregon. But “there is this culture in law enforcement … you don’t tell on your buddies, and you become so insular and isolated. You get so bought into this police culture — this macho, very often sexualized culture — and you don’t see anything wrong with it. It’s like as a badge of honor, how many women in the community you can have sex with, and the younger the better.”
In fact, in some cases the same cops who sexually harassed their female co-workers also may have targeted woman civilians. In Washington, D.C., officer Darrell Best was charged in March with sexually assaulting a 17-year-old girl at police headquarters. During a hearing, prosecutors revealed that in 2007 Best also had sexually harassed a female cadet he supervised. In October, he pleaded guilty.
And Hoeffer, the Riviera Beach cop accused of sexually assaulting the blind woman, had previously been accused of sexually harassing two female dispatchers he supervised when he worked at the nearby Palm Beach Shores department. The accusations are still being investigated, and Hoeffer is on paid leave, according to news reports.
The NYPD itself was hit with payouts in at least four lawsuits last year involving sexual harassment of female NYPD officers by male co-workers, according to news accounts. The amounts ranged from $100,000 to $1.25 million.
Still, it may be hard to generalize about the culture inside the country’s largest police force. One retired female NYPD lieutenant said that in her 26 years on the force, she neither saw nor heard about cases of sexual misconduct and rarely heard of cases of sexual harassment. (She asked that her name not be used because her current job is in the security field and she “doesn’t think her employer would want her name out there.”) Nineteen other current or retired female NYPD officers contacted for this story either did not respond or declined to comment.
But a civil sexual harassment suit concluded last June tells a different story. Denis McAuliffe, an NYPD Transit Bureau lieutenant, was found guilty of sexually harassing a female subordinate. Asked during a deposition about a witness’ contention that he’d referred to his 4,000-officer bureau as a “sex fest,” he said he couldn’t recall. He also admitted to sleeping with female officers he supervised.
At least one department appears to have a sexual misconduct policy with teeth. In Richmond, Virginia, the police department has had an explicit prohibition written into its policies since 2007 prohibiting sexual activity while on duty. Such activity, the policy warns officers, is “prima facie evidence of neglect of duty.”
The policy spells out the consequences of on-duty consensual sex — the first offense merits a 6- to 10-day suspension, the second an 11-day suspension and automatic demotion, and the third termination. More serious forms of on-duty sexual activity bring harsher penalties that are individualized according to the behavior.
Jannie Ligons, left, one of the victims of sexual assault by former Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw, with Attorney Benjamin Crump, right, during a news conference in Oklahoma City, Friday, Dec. 11, 2015. Ligons’ report launched the police investigation into Holtzclaw. Sue Ogrocki / AP
New supervisors get four hours of training on sexual misconduct and other forms of discriminatory policing, says Chief Alfred Durham. New recruits get two hours.
Durham also says he holds town hall meetings at which he spells out the complaint process for citizens. “We want folks to file complaints. We work for the people — we have to know if we’re getting it right.”
The department has had no reported incidents of sexual misconduct involving an officer in the last five years, Durham says.
Still, advocates say improvements won’t come by waiting on individual police chiefs to do the right thing. Ritchie and others think it’s time for the federal government to step in. When President Obama announced his Task Force on 21st Century Policing after the spate of police shootings last year, Ritchie drafted a letter which 35 women’s rights and racial justice advocacy organizations signed that urged the task force to include recommendations designed to address police sexual assaults. Among those: the federal government should make its grants to local police departments conditional on the departments implementing the IACP’s guidelines.
A weaker version of that made it into the task force’s final report. The U.S. Department of Justice, the recommendation said, should “promote and disseminate guidance” to police departments on preventing sexual misconduct that’s “consistent with” the IACP guidelines. The task force also called on the government to use existing surveys by the DOJ and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to start compiling data on how many citizens are victims of police sexual misconduct.
But those recommendations aren’t binding. The DOJ didn’t respond to a question about whether it plans to disseminate the IACP recommendations. But it did confirm that, beginning in 2018, it will start collecting data on police sexual misconduct through a survey it does every three years on the public’s experiences with police. For its part, the CDC said the current design of its survey on sexual violence makes it impossible to collect data on police sexual misconduct.
Pressure on departments could bubble up from another direction: taxpayers. The five women now suing New York City for alleged sexual assaults by NYPD officers are asking for damages totaling at least $178 million. Any awards in those cases will come on top of the almost $1.8 million the city paid to settle the four cases of sexual harassment of female officers by men on the force in 2015.
In 2014, the city paid $217 million for lawsuit claims filed against the NYPD, far and away topping any other city agency. Payouts for claims against the department have risen steadily — the total grew 119 percent from 2005 to 2014, according to the city’s comptroller. With the comptroller in the midst of an aggressive effort to cut the city’s lawsuit liabilities, the NYPD soon might find itself with no choice but to prioritize the elimination of sexual assault and abuse by its officers.
“There is a bit more acknowledgment [in law enforcement] that this is an issue we need to get ahead of,” says Maher, “if only to say [to potential juries] that we made an effort.”
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