A police officer in Prince George’s County, Maryland, was charged this week with raping a woman during a traffic stop. He’s pleaded not guilty, but it’s a disturbing headline – even more disturbing when you consider there are hundreds more like him.
Yes, hundreds. According to research from Bowling Green State University, police officers in the US were charged with forcible rape 405 times between 2005 and 2013. That’s an average of 45 a year. Forcible fondling was more common, with 636 instances.
Yet experts say those statistics are, by no means, comprehensive. Data on sexual assaults by police are almost nonexistent, they say.
“It’s just not available at all,” said Jonathan Blanks, a research associate with the Cato Institute’s Project on Criminal Justice. “You can only crowdsource this info.”
The BGSU researchers compiled their list by documenting cases of sworn nonfederal law enforcement officers who have been arrested. But the 2016 federally funded paper, “Police Integrity Lost: A Study of Law Enforcement Officers Arrested,” says the problem isn’t limited to sexual assault.
“There are no comprehensive statistics available on problems with police integrity,” the report says, and no government entity collects data on police who are arrested.
It adds, “Police sexual misconduct and cases of police sexual violence are often referred to as hidden offenses, and studies on police sexual misconduct are usually based on small samples or derived from officer surveys that are threatened by a reluctance to reveal these cases.”
The nation’s foremost researchers on the subject, thus, must often rely on published media reports. The BGSU numbers, for instance, are the result of Google alerts on 48 search terms entered by researchers. The scholars then follow each case through adjudication.
While those numbers represent a fair portion of cases, arrests rely on a victim making a report and a law enforcement agency making that report public, after an arrest or otherwise. With sexual assaults by police officers, neither is guaranteed.
Why the numbers are lacking
One of the greatest impediments to understanding the scope of police sexual assault is the victims’ reluctance to report the crime.
“Who do you call when your rapist or offender is a police officer? What a scary situation that must be,” said Philip Stinson, an associate professor of criminal justice who served as principal investigator for the police integrity paper and whose research assistants maintain the BGSU database.
No one interviewed for this story could give an estimate, even ballpark, on how underreported these types of crimes might be.
“I have to think it’s a much worse problem than my data suggests,” said Stinson, himself a former police officer.
There are several reasons behind the muddy data. The federal government cannot compel states to make the nation’s 18,000 law enforcement agencies report the numbers. Even if they could, the Justice Department wouldn’t have the resources to oversee and maintain such a database, Blanks said.
Unions also work hard to protect police officers and their reputations, he said.
“They don’t want their officers and membership shamed if something goes wrong,” Blanks said.<