Just this month, three police officers in different cities have been charged with raping women who called the police for help:
March 20, Baltimore: A police officer with Baltimore’s MTA, the local transit authority, was charged with raping a woman who called for help after her car was hit by a city bus. Officer Martez Johnson responded to the call, investigated the scene, then drove the victim home in his police cruiser. It was at her home, says the woman, that Johnson raped her.
March 12, San Jose: Officer Geoffrey Graves responded to a domestic disturbance call; when he arrived, he found a woman and her husband fighting. The woman told the officer she wanted to spend the night at a hotel, so he drove her to the location in his cruiser. The woman says that 15 minutes after she checked in, the officer returned, “entered the room, grabbed the victim forcibly and pushed her onto the bed,” according to San Jose police investigator Sgt. Craig Storlie.
March 7, Detroit: A Detroit woman called 911 after being attacked by her boyfriend. Deon Nunlee, one of the officers who responded to the call, allegedly took the caller to an upstairs bedroom and raped her while his partner dealt with the boyfriend downstairs.
How can women feel safe calling the police knowing they may find themselves victimized by those charged with protecting them? Intervention by the federal government into local police departments may be one way.
A group of federal agencies launched investigations this week into officer misconduct at the San Diego police department. The federal justice department is reviewing about 15 cases of misconduct that have already been prosecuted—many involving sexual assault by officers—while the FBI and U.S. attorney’s office launched a criminal investigation into other allegations against San Diego police. Said SDPD chief Shelley Zimmerman,
Our entire department feels terrible about this misconduct. We believe that those few officers have betrayed our badge, discredited, dishonored our noble profession. And our officers welcome this [investigation]. All of us want to know what we can do to prevent hiring somebody that is going to make the terrible decision to discredit our badge.
The justice department can choose to sue for civil-rights violations, and if they’re successful the court can appoint an independent monitor to oversee the police department. According to Joshua Chanin, a San Diego State University professor, justice department interventions and independent monitoring are some of the best ways to turn around police departments gone bad.
“It’s the most effective way to provide quick and lasting change,” Chanin said. Though independent monitoring can be expensive, it’s worth it to keep crime victims safe from further abuse.
The SDPD review has only just begun, and Chief Zimmerman has said she doesn’t think a monitor is necessary, but she did vow to reinstate a police anti-corruption unit that her predecessor had disbanded. The results of these federal investigations could go a long way toward keeping women victims of crime safe from bad cops—and we hope the nation’s other police departments are watching.
Stephanie Hallett is a writer and editor in Los Angeles. She can be found on Twitter @stephhallett.