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Part 1: Police use of force against women up 350% and other facts about policing women

Becky Sullivan
The face of Breonna Taylor is memorialized in drawings throughout Louisville, where she was killed by police in March. She is also the face of the #SayHerName campaign, started to bring attention to police use of force against Black women.

While much of the national conversation about police reform has focused on race, gender also affects policing. Combine race and gender and you will find that women -- particularly Black women -- are being stopped by police much more often than two decades ago, and those stops are becoming much more troubling.

More than 15 years before George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the Oscar-winning Best Picture "Crash" portrayed how systemic racism is interwoven through everyday life.

"All right, both of you. Turn around, put your hands on top of your head, interlock your fingers," says Sgt. John Ryan, played by Matt Dillon.

"Wait a minute. We're only a block away from our house," says television director Cameron Thayer, played by Terence Howard, who seems stunned at how quickly a routine traffic stop has escalated.

"Hands on your head, interlock your fingers," repeats Ryan, who slams Thayer against his patrol car and then turns his attention to Thayer's wife.

Credit FYE
The 2004 movie "Crash" won three Academy Awards, including Best Picture, for its depiction of race in America.

In an early scene, two white Los Angeles police officers stop a wealthy Black couple who are driving home from an awards party. Despite the couple's social status, Ryan makes it clear he is in control.

"You f*ing pig," says Christine Thayer, played by Thandie Newton, as Ryan turns her around against his patrol car, spreads her legs and begins a very intimate patdown from behind, supposedly looking for weapons.

"We could use our discretion and let you go with a warning, or we can cuff you and put you back in the car," says Ryan, as his hands probe every outer and inner inch of Thayer's wife. "What do you think we should do, sir?"

"We're sorry and we would appreciate it if you'd let us go with a warning," says Thayer, hoping to stop the molestation of his wife. "Please."

"The guy's apologizing, Tommy," Ryan says to his partner. "I think we can let him go."

It may be a movie, but the scene is very telling about how force can be used by police -- and the additional threat of sexual assault faced by women, especially Black women.

"Something that we found is that women have experienced an over 300% increase in use of force incidents between 1999 and 2015. And while men have also experienced an increased use of force, it was only about 100%," said Wanda Bertram, spokesperson for thePrison Policy Initiative, a Massachusetts-based researcher concerned about the "overcriminalization" of society.

There is little consistently reported data about police use of force that is readily available to the public, but PPI has been a watchdog.

Credit Contacts Between Police and the Public 2015 / Bureau of Justice Statistics
The chart above is how use of force is documented by the Department of Justice. A decade-long Bowling Green State University study found that the sexual nature of force used is often omitted from police reports.

"We know that those things are happening. What I think this moment is bringing attention to is why do those things happen," Bertram said. "If we sort of assume that's just naturally how things are supposed to go, we're making a big mistake and we're overlooking the systemic racism and inequality that has caused that to be the case." 

Bertram said PPI found Black women are three times more likely to experience use of force than during a police stop than white women. In fact, Black women experience use of force more than white women and white men. The Bureau of Justice Statistics also found that in 2015, 84% of those who experienced a non-lethal threat of police force "perceived the action to be excessive."

"That's important, right?" said Bertram. "It's important not just because it says something about how police perceive the behavior and the mannerisms of Black women as compared to white women, but it gets to something even bigger about how police operating in Black communities may feel themselves to be more threatened or more primed for a forceful incident than when they're in white communities."

There is even less data about sexual use of force by police, but here is some of what is known:

  • The Buffalo News found between 2005 and 2015, a law enforcement official was caught in an act of sexual misconduct every 5 days. The vast majority of victims were motorists, young people in job-shadowing programs, students, victims of violence and informants.
  • A decade-long Bowling Green State University study of police sexual violence found 41.5% of cases involved a repeat offender, who had targeted four people on average and had 2-to-21 prior allegations of police sexual violence.
  • The Associated Press found 1,000 officers nationwide lost their licenses between 2009 and 2014 as a result of their sexual misconduct, including rape and sodomy, sexual favors to avoid arrest, gratuitous patdowns, possession of child pornography and sexting juveniles.
  • The 2010 Annual Report of the Cato Institute'sNational Police Misconduct Reporting Projectfound sexual misconduct was the second most common form of misconduct reported throughout 2010, with 618 officersinvolved in complaints, 354 of which involved forcible non-consensual sexual activity such as sexual assault or sexual battery. Of these officers, 51% involved minors.

The National Sexual Assault Resource Center estimates up to 2/3 of sexual crimes are not reported, so the problem is likely much larger than the data shows. Bertram said cultural attitudes toward Black women also make their complaints less likely to be believed.

Last month, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a law repealing 50-a, which had protected police disciplinary records from public view. Advocates say this will help shed more light on the true extent of the problem.

Bertram said, as women become more visible in the criminal justice system, it becomes more important to understand how they are policed differently than men and what gender-responsive police training is needed.

"Paying attention to why women go to prison, why they're locked up, the force of expectations and stereotypes that have perpetuated by our legal system in doing that, helps us understand the problems with our criminal legal system more generally," she said.

WBFO's Marian Hetherly will have Part 2 of her look at policing women on Tuesday during Morning Edition.

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