By Lisalyn R. Jacobs
For over a year, since the Ray Rice domestic violence case captured the headlines, we have been asking--or invited to ask--some version of the same question: "Why didn't she leave," or "Why didn't she call the cops?"
This week, as the sexual assault trial of former Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw wrapped up, that question became the cornerstone of his defense. Holtzclaw's lawyer tried to call his victims' veracity and credibility into question because they hadn't reported their assaults to other law enforcement immediately after they happened.
Holtzclaw was accused of sexually assaulting 13 women, all of them Black. Many had outstanding warrants. Some were abusing drugs. Some had been prostituted. The youngest victim was only 17 when Holtzclaw raped her on the porch of her mother's house. When asked at trial "why didn't she call the cops," she testified: "What kind of police do you call on the police?"
Tellingly, neither Holtzclaw's arrest in August of 2014, nor his trial have garnered the amount of attention that might be reasonably expected for the trial of a former cop charged with 36 felonies, including rape and sexual battery. The under- to non-reaction of the press bears out the prosecutor's question during closing arguments about the defendant's choice to prey on poor, Black women: "Who will believe these women, and who will care?"As we near the anniversary of the Obama Administration initiating the 21st Century Policing Task Force--in large part as a response to the killing of a number of unarmed African Americans--it is crucial that we begin to understand three facts:
- Women/girls of color, particularly Black women and girls, are victims of state violence;
- This violence is systemic and needs to be addressed as such;
- Over-policing in poor, immigrant and minority communities may make victims of crime reluctant or unwilling to seek help from law enforcement.
A recent National Domestic Hotline survey demonstrates that some survivors do not call law enforcement for a variety of good reasons: they fear it will make things worse; they have called before and been arrested or threatened with arrest; and they fear they will not be believed.
As a police officer, Holtzclaw knew this and made a conscious decision to exploit his victims on that basis. He ran their names through the database and used what he found, such as previous arrests or outstanding warrants, to coerce them into exposing themselves, performing sexual acts, or submitting to his assaults.
To ask Holtzclaw's victims why they didn't call the police when they were, in fact, being threatened and victimized by the police is the worst kind of victim-blaming. When you consider that Holtzclaw was found guilty of only half the charges brought against him, you can see that the survivors' fears of not being believed, of not being able to get a jury to see past their shortcomings, were justified. In this case, an all-white jury convicted on only half the charges, related to just eight of the 13 accusers.To begin to strengthen our broken criminal justice system as it relates to women, we need to:
- Support survivors of abuse--whoever they are and whenever they come forward;
- Commend law enforcement when they get it right. (In response to the single Holtzclaw victim who came forward, the Oklahoma City police mounted an investigation that uncovered the others who had not.)
- Work to identify and eradicate bias in policing, especially against women of color; and
- Hold law enforcement accountable when they dishonor the badge.
Taking these actions strengthens the possibility that victims will overcome their fears and suspicions and reach out to law enforcement for help. Survivors who have faith in the criminal justice system are more likely to report.
Where to call if you are a victim of domestic or sexual violence:
The National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-HOPE (4673)
The National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233)
Lisalyn R. Jacobs is the vice president for government relations of Legal Momentum, the Women's Legal Defense and Education Fund. She works closely with members of Congress and the Administration on a variety of issues including the Violence Against Women Act, campus sexual assault, and workplace and other economic protections for victims of violence, among others.
On Twitter: @LRockL