On Monday, New York police officers Eddie Martins and Richard Hall pleaded not guilty to charges of sexually assaulting an 18-year-old woman in September.
The victim, Anna Chambers, accused the two plain-clothes NYPD narcotic detectives of kidnapping, sexual assault, and rape. She says that on September 15, after she was arrested for possession of cannabis and an anti-anxiety drug, the officers took her alone to a nearby car park. There, she alleges that she was violently raped by Martins and sexually assaulted by both officers.
DNA from the officers was found after Chambers went to a hospital and had a rape kit done. Hall and Martins both admitted having sexual contact with Chambers but publicly insisted that the sex was “consensual”, which is an impossible statement given the power dynamic at play. Simply put, there’s no such thing as consent when a police officer has a person in handcuffs, as journalist Natasha Lennard explained in a recent piece for The Intercept.
As public attention is focused on the multiplying accusations of sexual assault against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, Chambers’ case shines a light on yet another public sphere in which men pervasively abuse power and authority to commit sex-related crimes: law enforcement. The rates of police officers committing a sex-related crime are “significantly higher” than the general population.
The true scope of the problem remains unknown. Many victims would not come forward because they have to report the abuse to another police officer; thus, such violent incidents are often called “hidden crimes”. And, as Chambers’ case illustrates, sex-related police crimes are often committed against younger or even underage individuals, who are more vulnerable and less likely to speak out.
Among many risks that victims face, apart from violent reprisals, are public smear campaigns as happened with Chambers. Prior to the indictment, the NYPD took an actively antagonistic tone towards her, seeking to discredit the young woman’s testimony and smear her character.
The internal culture of the NYPD is clearly toxic, and has proven time and time again to be a safe harbour for those who'd rather abuse the people they're supposed to 'protect'.
In a letter to the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office obtained by the New York Post, the police officers’ lawyers pointed to Chambers’ rambunctious social media presence and “provocative” selfies as evidence that she was lying about the rape. “This behavior is unprecedented for a depressed victim of a vicious rape,” the letter reads, as if written by someone who has never interacted with a teenager before, let alone one processing brutal trauma under public scrutiny.
The insinuation that there is only one appropriate reaction to this kind of violence is a slap in the face to all sexual assault survivors and highlights the cruelty and ambivalence with which the NYPD tends to treat its own sexual assault cases.
The New York City Police Department (NYPD) has a long-standing tradition of violence, particularly against marginalised populations. A quick Google search of “NYPD sexual assault” dredges up case after case – even against their own, as in the case of Deputy Inspector Keith Walton, who in 2016 was charged with felony sexual abuse after allegedly assaulting a female police officer, or in at least three lawsuits last year that involved sexual harassment of female NYPD officers by male co-workers.
Outside the office, things only get worse. In 2011, Officer Harold Avalos responded to a woman on a domestic abuse call, contacted her at a later date, formed a relationship, and allegedly raped her in a motel. In 2012, Officer Arthur Roldan was charged with raping his former girlfriend at gunpoint in a car park; that same year, independently of Roldan’s case, Officer Michael Pena was convicted of the very same crime.
In 2013, NYPD highway officer Carlos Becker filmed a Bronx woman while she was in custody, then sent her flirtatious texts. It is alleged that he eventually drugged her at a bar and raped her. Becker was indicted for filming the woman, but the NYPD declined to pursue rape charges.
In April 2015, NYPD officer Delfin Lantigua pleaded guilty to soliciting sex and cash from a woman who sought a job in his department. In May this year, three NYPD officers at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn were arrested on charges of sexually abusing at least half a dozen female inmates. The list goes on, and on, and on, and never gets any less horrifying.
Unless they are actually indicted, in the eyes of the NYPD, these men technically have not done anything wrong. True, it is against NYPD policy for officers to have sex on duty; those who do so can be charged with the broad offence of official misconduct, which bars the misuse of official authority for personal benefit.
However, nothing in city law makes the behaviour explicitly illegal. This leaves a loophole for predator police officers to exploit, and the reasoning behind this is unclear.
Last week, following the news of Martins and Hall’s indictment, New York City Councilman Mark Treyger announced that he would draft legislation that would make it illegal for a police officer to engage in sexual activity with someone in police custody, whether in a police car or in the course of an arrest or law enforcement action.
As its own history makes clear, the NYPD has not been trying all that hard to foster friendly relationships with New Yorkers who do not happen to be white and male. Whether Martins and Halls end up behind bars or not, they have joined a long line of others who have been caught committing shameful, depraved sexual abuse against the people of New York City – and the people owe it to themselves to speak out against these crimes and the broken policing system that shields those who commit them.
We need to serve and protect our own by strengthening community support networks and pushing back against police violence with every ounce of strength we have. The internal culture of the NYPD is clearly toxic, and has proven time and time again to be a safe harbour for those who would rather abuse the people they are supposed to “protect“. Demanding justice for Anna Chambers is only the beginning.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.