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Holtzclaw Conviction Sheds Light on Prevalence of Police Sexual Abuse While on Duty

The conviction of the former Oklahoma cop on on rape charges came as a report found that thousands of law enforcement officials across the country have lost their licenses for rape, sexual assault, and sexual misconduct.

by Kanyakrit Vongkiatkajorn
Dec 11 2015, 9:30pm

Photo by Sue Ogrocki/AP

A former Oklahoma police officer accused of raping multiple women on duty was found guilty on 18 of 36 charges of sexual assault Thursday night, in a more than month-long trial that highlighted how some officers have used their authority to intimidate and sexually assault women.

Daniel Holtzclaw spent three years as a police officer patrolling a low-income, minority neighborhood in Oklahoma before he was arrested last August, then fired in January. Prosecutors identified a pattern to Holtzclaw's behavior, arguing that Holtzclaw backgrounded his victims and specifically targeted African-American women who had previous arrests or a history of drug possession, in the hopes that their allegations would not be believed.

"He exercised authority on those society doesn't care about," Assistant District Attorney Gayland Gieger said, according to Reuters.

Holtzclaw's case has drawn national attention to sexual misconduct among police officers, sparking a year-long investigation by the Associated Press which found thousands of police officers and other law enforcement officials across the country had lost their licenses over a six-year period for rape, sexual assault, and sexual misconduct. Victims tended to be young, poor, or had troubled backgrounds, making it unlikely for them to come forward.

The AP noted that their number was "unquestionably an undercount," because some police departments, including in large states such as New York and California, do not have systems for revoking officers' licenses for misconduct. Other police departments did not take action against police officers accused of sexual misconduct.

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On Thursday, an Alabama state trooper was charged with first-degree rape and first-degree sodomy after he reportedly handcuffed a woman and threatened to arrest her if she did not have sex with him. An investigation published in December by the Guardian exposed multiple cases of male officers involved in sexual assault in Kern County, California. This March, a San Diego police officer who pled guilty to groping and abusing women on duty was released after spending five months in jail. 

Philip Stinson, an associate professor at Bowling Green State University who tracks arrests of police officers, told VICE News that there is a familiar pattern among officers, and that many tend to be involved in more than one case.

"When one victim is finally believed, for every initial victim, we've seen five that come forward. We see that pattern for many sexual assault cases," said Stinson, whose research was cited in the AP investigation. "It raises questions – how often does this kind of thing go on? Many women are absolutely terrified to come forward once they've been assaulted. What police do you call to report on the police?"

Stinson also notes that the cases of police officers being arrested and charged are outliers, because few officers are ever arrested to begin with.

"One of the problems is that even in police departments that have early warning systems, officers will ignore the flags that are there," said Stinson. "What we see time and again is that [departments] had every reason to know that someone was a problem officer, and they ignore the warnings." 

Stinson said that Holtzclaw easily fit within this pattern of sexual assault, but that he also stood out as someone who preyed on specific types of women. 

"Holtzclaw falls into this small subset of true sex predators, who are very dangerous people because they've got a gun and a badge," said Stinson. "He targeted women that he clearly viewed as throwaways, women who he knew would not be believed."

Holtzclaw was charged with 36 counts of sexual assault on 13 women, and was found guilty on charges related to eight women. Four of the convictions were for first-degree rape.

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More than 40 witnesses testified at the trial, including thirteen women who were suspected victims. The youngest victim, who was 17 at the time of her assault, described how Holtzclaw approached her as she was heading home, asked her if she had drugs, then raped her on her mother's porch. Her DNA was later found on Holtzclaw's uniform. 

Holtzclaw will be sentenced January 21st, and could potentially face life in prison. The jury recommended 263 years in prison based on his charges. 

The 29-year-old could be seen visibly shaking and sobbing during the verdict, and told reporters, "I didn't do it," as he left the courtroom, according to news reports. He declined to testify during the trial and his lawyer has denied all charges.

In a press conference held after the trial, two of Holtzclaw's victims publicly spoke of their experiences. 

"I was so afraid, I was out there so helpless," said Janie Liggins, a woman who had previously been identified as J.L., the New York Times reported. "God's will, he let me live. He let me live and tell this story like a lot of victims are not able to do."

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