263-year sentence in Oklahoma City rape case: A wakeup call for police

The Daniel Holtzclaw case spotlights the problem of police sexual abuse. Even when cities take strong steps to address the issue, however, progress can come slowly. 

Sue Ogrocki/AP
Daniel Holtzclaw (c.) listens as Oklahoma County's assistant district attorney speaks during Holtzclaw's sentencing hearing in Oklahoma City Thursday.

The 263-year prison sentence received by Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw last week for raping vulnerable women was a national wakeup call. At a time when police departments are already under intense scrutiny for violent conduct, it cast a light on another problem: police sexual abuse.

San Diego, however, was already supposed to have gotten that message.

In 2011, 10 San Diego police officers were investigated and six arrested on charges of criminal misconduct, most of them sexual offenses. One of the officers was charged with sexually assaulting eight women. 

Investigations were made and reforms were promised, but in 2014, two more San Diego officers faced similar allegations.

Taken together, the Oklahoma City and San Diego cases show the scope of the problem of police sex abuse and the challenges inherent in trying to fix it.

San Diego stands as a test case. It is a prime example of how a police department with a strong reputation for progressive policies can still have sexual predators hiding behind the badge.

But women’s rights advocates are concerned that the Holtzclaw case will not be the alarm bell it should be for other departments nationwide. Activists say progress toward changing traditional male-dominated police culture has been slow – and may be going in reverse. 

There are examples of police chiefs trying to make a difference after rapes by officers come to light. Yet there remains the tendency among many police leaders to “just try to ignore the whole thing and hope it goes away,” says Penny Harrington, former police chief in Portland, Ore., and former director of the National Center for Women & Policing. 

“If I asked police chiefs, ‘Have you done training around a policy of no sexual behavior while on duty?’ they would say, ‘Everybody knows that,’ and then when something happens they’re shocked,” Ms. Harrington says. 

How to measure progress

It’s hard to measure progress because there’s no national database indicating how many officers are accused of sexual misconduct and what becomes of them. 

Sexual offenses are among the top three complaints against police officers, an Associated Press investigation found. Nearly 1,000 officers in 41 states lost their badges because of sexual offenses between 2009 and 2014, it noted. But like other sexual assaults – and probably even more so, given the potential fear of accusing a police officer – such crimes by police go underreported. 

In Oklahoma City, the first woman to report a sexual assault by Mr. Holtzclaw said it happened during a nighttime traffic stop. When officer Kim Davis heard the complaint, she investigated and started connecting the dots – locating and interviewing other potential victims, AP reports. 

Today, 13 women have accused Holtzclaw of sexual crimes – all of them black. Holtzclaw’s criminal conviction, and what amounts to a lifetime sentence, “is a historic precedent because it shows that a black woman from a low-income area … can come forward and be believed,” says Grace Franklin, co-founder of OKC Artists for Justice, a group formed in 2013 to support the legal cases against Holtzclaw and the police.

Her group is among those that have called for departments around the country to adopt zero-tolerance policies toward sexual misconduct, training for all officers around how to respond to sexual assault and domestic violence, and a national database showing officers that have been disciplined, terminated, criminally charged, or convicted for sexual misconduct.

“This is an issue for all women,” Ms. Franklin says.

Indeed, Holtzclaw’s crimes speak to broader trends. Back in 2002, an influential report on “Driving While Female” called attention to a disproportionately high rate of traffic stops of women, and to incidents of sexual misconduct during such stops. 

When allegations arose in San Diego, the city had strong community policing policies and had led the way in treating domestic violence as a serious crime. “It’s a real cautionary tale of how quickly things can go bad when people at the top take their eye off the ball,” says Samuel Walker, a criminal justice expert and author of the “Driving While Female” report.  

Then-chief of police William Lansdowne promised changes, including a complaint hotline, an early warning system, and a stronger internal affairs response. When fresh allegations emerged in 2014, Chief Landsdowne helped arrange an external review supported by the Department of Justice before retiring. 

Chief Shelley Zimmerman took over, and she’s been implementing many of about 40 recommendations in the review. 

One major problem was insufficient supervision of patrol officers. After severe budget cuts, up to a quarter of sergeant positions had been filled by acting sergeants who lacked the proper training and authority to detect misconduct or hold officers accountable. 

Since then, dozens of people have been promoted into the role of sergeant, which triggers new levels of training, according to a summary the department gave to the city council last year. 

Among other changes so far: clearer hiring practices that can raise red flags in a candidates’ background and stronger training to ensure discipline is consistently applied.

“Some of the men like to see how much they can get away with … and if you don’t hold them accountable, they get more brave,” says Harrington.

The importance of diversity

Crucially important, however, is diversifying the force.

“I truly believe that you have to get more women and more minorities in policing,” Harrington says. “Women will tell if they know something is going on.”

In the late 1990s, women made up a quarter or more of some police departments, Harrington says, partly because the federal government had put forward grants for community policing and for responding to violence against women. 

“When 9/11 happened, it just stopped,” Harrington says. A militaristic style swept back into vogue after the terrorist attacks, and most departments shifted away from recruiting women. “I had a police chief tell me, ‘We don’t have to do that crap anymore. We’re at war.’ ”

She estimates women now make up about 10 percent of police.

But whether a female police chief in San Diego will be able to prevent more sexual assaults by officers remains to be seen.

“The chief has been very consistent and publicly committed to making changes … but not as transparent as we’d like,” says Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, who has been monitoring the reforms as the criminal justice and drug policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of California.

The San Diego Police Department and the IACP did not return calls seeking comment Friday.

Diversity is not a panacea, agree Monique Dixon, a policy expert on police reform at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “If there is a culture of tolerating misconduct, even a diverse department will engage in this conduct.”  

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