On March 26th, 2021, a new bill was introduced in the Rhode Island State Legislative. Bill 249 would create the “criteria for the criminal offense of sexual assault when the victim is in the custody of a peace officer.” This begs several questions: how often are these so-called peace officers sexually assaulting those in custody? Is this a widespread issue that has gone unnoticed? And who is a peace officer?
It turns out these questions are only the tip of an iceberg into horrific misconduct. Let’s start with the last question first. According to Rhode Island Title 12 chapters 12-17, peace officers are any officers ranging from an officer from the Department of Environmental Management to armed police. This field’s vastness suggests that many people are working in Rhode Island to ensure its people’s peace. Still, their noble title seems to contradict the criminal actions that Rhode Islanders may need protection from through the proposed bill.
Currently, if a person is detained by a police officer and the officer claims there was consent, any sexual activity between the two is likely to be seen as inculpable. The acts of sodomy, fondling, touching, or rape in these settings and the victim’s viewpoint have been hidden away. The implicit power dynamics between these two players create a situation out of a philosophical thought experiment: is rape still rape if the victim is widely perceived to be unreliable due to their suspected involvement in a crime and the rapist is purported to be a community hero?
The answer is yes, and it will always be yes.
It is impossible in these situations for there to be any consent. The victims in these cases are literally held without the power to leave. Yet, in 34 states, there are no laws to protect detainees from such acts of sexual atrocity on their autonomy.
How big of an issue is this? The astonishing answer is we have no idea. “Data on sexual assaults by police are almost nonexistent,” according to researcher Philip Stinson of Bowling Green University. When his team decided to investigate police misconduct, the research team used Google alerts on 48 search terms and then followed each case to conclude if sexual misconduct occurred. They found 405 cases for forcible rape, 219 cases of forcible sodomy, and 636 cases of forcible fondling in seven years across the United States (Stinson et al.).
We ought to ask ourselves, how has a system designed to protect us failed so terribly? In “2007, seventy police chiefs gathered in an annual meeting and nearly every attendee raised their hand when asked if they had dealt with an officer accused of sexual misdeeds”. (Sedensky and Merchant) In how many of those cases do you think the survivor was able to find justice? And how many are still carrying the burden of losing faith in the system?
As Americans, the fact that we have to go so far as to create laws that explicitly prohibit our “peace officers” from sexually assaulting those they are meant to serve is a gross example of the unfettered power we invest in them. In a day and age where divesting the police has become a popular slogan, it is time to reevaluate this power imbalance.
Sedensky, Matt, and Norman Merchant. AP Special Report: Hundreds of Officers Lose Licenses over Sex Misconduct - News - Holland Sentinel - Holland, MI. https://www.hollandsentinel.com/article/20151101/NEWS/151109965. Accessed 31 Mar. 2021.
Stinson, Philip M., et al. Police Sexual Misconduct: A National Scale Study of Arrested Officers. p. 46.