[Possible trigger warning: discussion of rape and murder of women.]
The other day I was walking through a shopping mall and overheard a male security guard talking to a female store manager. The two clearly knew each other.
“So, his divorce hasn’t been finalized yet?” I heard the woman ask.
“No!” the guard responded in a loud voice, “Because his ex is being a TOTAL. FUCKING. BITCH!”
I swear that this swearing guy was frothing at the mouth. His anger was intense. And while his rage would have been alarming in any context, he is a guy who wears a uniform. He is supposed to be there to keep us safe. He represents security itself. But I sure didn’t feel very secure, and if I were a woman, I probably would have felt even less so.
The woman with whom he was speaking seemed taken aback by his anger. After a slight flinch, she just nodded and smiled a slight smile. But in her eyes I thought I could see a guardedness. Like perhaps she was assessing just how safe this guy would really keep her if she ever needed help. Or perhaps she was wondering if might ever need to be kept safe from him!
Failure to protect. Watching this incident, I was reminded of another time when male-provided “security” fell far short of what it should have been.
When I was a university student, a horrific story appeared in the school newspaper about a female student who had awoken to find a strange man in her dormitory room. The man threatened her with a knife, told her to be quiet, covered her face with a pillow, and then raped her.
The woman – who survived the assault, and then bravely wrote that article about her own experience – reported that after raping her, the man fled. She then called the police. One of the responding police officers – also a man – told her not to be too upset about what had just happened to her. She was a cute girl, he said, and then he told her:
“Don’t worry. There are other fish in the sea.”
The young woman reported being stunned and confused by this comment. All these many years later, I too remain stunned and confused by it as well. Did the officer think that this was just some love affair gone wrong? A rape gone wrong? That there are cuter rapists out there? Or was he just trying to “reassure” her that he didn’t think that she was now “damaged goods,” and that some other man would still want her?
This young woman had just been horribly violated in an extremely terrifying way, and all this cop could think of to say was that she would still have the chance to have an active sex life. I still can’t quite get my head around what he was trying to communicate to her that night.
Cops and sex workers. Another thing I can’t quite get my head around is how the television and film industry tries to communicate the relationship between cops and women who work the streets. (And between cops and strippers, too. There are so many movies that have a totally random scene or two in a strip club. It must often be just be the director’s way of getting some bare breasts into the movie. You know, a sort of sex break from all the action scenes. Slow it down, show some boobs…) In movies and in t.v. shows, women who work on the streets or in strip joints -- and who, unfortunately, are almost never important characters in the plot -- are endlessly depicted as flirting with cops and offering them “freebies.”
But the reality is often very different.
For a time I worked on a project on how to meet the safety needs of homeless people who lived in the skid row section of a large North American city. Of special concern was the physical safety of women who live without shelter. One of the stakeholder groups we interviewed was the detachment of cops who were stationed at the local community policing office downtown. They were a little hard-bitten and world-weary, as one might easily become when being asked to protect and serve in the roughest area of town. But it turned out that they weren’t especially interested in discussing how to solve the community’s problems. In fact, the officer in charge was far more interested in making a big production out of folding a five dollar bill lengthwise and placing it on the table like an a-frame tent. He then explained that one of the dancers at the strip joint just down the block was able to squat down and pick up any paper money folded like that using only the lips of her vagina.
Again, I am not really sure what this cop’s point was. But rather than talk about solving problems and promoting community safety, all he wanted to discuss was what this woman down the block would do with her genitals for money. (As he spoke, I was reminded that the officer himself was making a lot better money than the woman was. And all he had to do was sit there. He sure as heck wasn’t doing much protecting or serving.)
No such thing as “benign neglect.” This same lack of interest in protecting and serving was also evident in Vancouver, British Columbia in the late 1990s and early 2000s as a serial killer was butchering sex workers there. When Robert Pickton was finally arrested in 2002 for kidnapping and murdering women, it turned out that he had initially come to the attention of the police years before.
In 1997 he took a sex worker to his farm and, after having sex with her, stabbed her with a knife. She fought back, and managed to stab him too. Both of them survived. He was charged with attempted murder, but because this drug-using woman who was engaged in a life of prostitution was not considered to be a reliable witness, the charges were dropped. (To be fair, it wasn’t the cops, it was the prosecutor who made that decision. But when one considers what happened next, that’s a pretty small distinction…)
For the next five years Pickton went on brutally killing woman after woman after woman. He was ultimately convicted in the murders of six women, but was formally charged with the murder of twenty more.
Even more shockingly, the remains or DNA of thirty-three women were ultimately found on his farm.
And he once told an undercover cop who was posing as his cellmate that he had killed forty-nine women.
What he did to those women is truly the stuff of nightmares – and is too horrific to recount here.
During those years, as scores of women were disappearing from the streets of East Vancouver, the police continually refused to take the issue seriously. Because the missing women were engaged in prostitution. Because most were using drugs. And a lot of people also believe it is also because most of the women were Aboriginal.
From a law enforcement perspective as to just what makes a victim worthy of assisting, being a sex worker, being on drugs, and being Aboriginal, well, that’s three strikes against you.
When the cops don’t care. The continuing police neglect in this situation -- and the horror that was allowed to continue for years -- ultimately led to the creation of a formal inquiry after the fact. The police force has apologized for not having caught Pickton earlier. But they have yet to accept any real responsibility for that failure. During the hearings, one witness testified that the police would not even take reports of missing women! Probably because the women were sex workers. Because they were on drugs. Because they were Aboriginal. And it is pretty tough for a police force to find women when it refuses to acknowledge that they are even missing!
Even this inquiry into the police response has become a nightmare, itself rife with sexism and hostility toward sex workers. According to Canada’s National Post:
A lawyer contracted to assist the commission says the inquiry “is replicating conditions that allowed women to go missing for so long: Lack of resources, dismissive attitudes, a failure to listen to the community. The commission has become a manifestation of the forces it was intended to study…. It’s like time travel. [There is] sexism, dismissiveness about discrimination. In the context, it’s completely abhorrent.”
Another lawyer who worked for the commission agrees, adding that [A]boriginal representation at the inquiry amounts to “tokenism. It’s nothing else but that...I was silenced. It was the most degrading, humiliating, devastating, disgusting thing. It was like being treated like a survival sex-trade worker.” (http://news.nationalpost.com/2012/04/03/missing-women-inquiry-staff-claim-abuse-highly-sexualized-workplace/)
So it seems that even this attempt to clean up police practices is going nowhere – bogged down instead in the swamps of male supremacy, of sexism, and of racism.
When the cop is the perp. It is clear that a lot of the police officers involved in the issue of the missing and murdered women in British Columbia were uncaring and inattentive. That is bad enough. But sometimes the officer himself is a perpetrator. In some of my activist work, I used to visit an organization that helped to advocate for the needs of sex workers. Women who were on the street could come in to the drop-in center to grab a bite to eat, and get bus tickets, clean needles, condoms, etc. And women who wanted to leave the streets could also get involved in other programming as well.
One of the most impactful things about being in that space was the large bulletin board where the women could leave each other messages about “bad dates” – men whom they should avoid interacting with at all costs. (Example: “Watch out for a white man with a shaved head driving a big red Ford pickup truck. DO NOT GET IN HIS TRUCK!”)
And one of the most disturbing posts on the bulletin board was one about a certain police officer. The post named him, and went on to say that he had a habit of hassling and arresting women who were working the streets. Once in the back of his police car, the woman had a choice: either be taken downtown and charged with a crime or give him a free blow job and then be released.
Avoid jail in exchange for providing free oral sex... that’s pretty much the definition of exploitation.
Where the hell were those women supposed to go when they needed help? To that cop? I don’t think so!
Cops and d.v. And what if you are in an abusive relationship, and your abuser is a cop? (It happens a lot. Police officers are four times more likely to be perpetrators of domestic violence than are men who are not cops. See http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2012/01/14/MNFQ1MP92G.DTL) Where do you go for help then? Do you call 911 when he – or one of his buddies – might be the responding officer? It is a terrifying situation that calls for extreme caution. (There are websites and books devoted to what to do if your batterer is a police officer http://www.purpleberets.org/whenbattererisacop_index.html). But what a horrible situation to be in… when a man who is out there ostensibly keeping the public safe is terrorizing you in private.
The U.S. federal government’s Violence Against Women Act is supposed to remove firearms from the hands of perpetrators of domestic violence. But hundreds of exemptions have been made for members of law enforcement – who get to still carry guns because they need them for work.
Don’t you dare ask us about our own! A few years ago I attended a community forum to address what a local police force was doing to combat domestic violence. The police sergeant who was speaking kept going on and on about what a great job he thought the police force was doing on this issue. He wasn’t citing any numbers or evidence, he was just sharing his impressions. When he finished, he asked if there were any questions. I raised my hand and said:
“It really sounds as if the police force is doing a lot to deal with the issue of domestic violence. That is really great.”
And then I asked:
“But I am curious – do you have any special protocols in place if the perpetrator is a
(Police forces around the world are quickly working to establish special procedures for responding when a police officer is accused of perpetrating domestic violence. Unfortunately, they often do this only after some high profile and horribly tragic event unfolds at the hands of one who was sworn to serve and protect. How much better it would be if they didn’t wait for such terrible things to happen!)
The sergeant did not like my question. His face quickly turned from its usual pale tan color to a bright, shocking red. Almost crimson. He glared at me with eyes full of furry.
“Well, of course it would be treated as a normal offense,” he said icily.
Now, I don’t know anything about the personal life of this officer who stared me down with such hostility, but I do know that if he were my husband, I would be extremely hesitant to do anything that might piss him off.
And I hate to quibble, but when a police officer batters a woman, that is hardly a “normal offense.”
Who’s the boss? There are not a lot of easy answers to dealing with the situation where the men who are supposed to serve and protect the public themselves endorse sexist or misogynist attitudes – and may even be perpetrators. Hiring more female officers is certainly part of the solution. And promoting female officers to ever higher levels of authority within law enforcement agencies is another part of the solution. We need to dismantle the old boys’ network that predatory men count on to protect them. (Although we also must keep in mind that female cops can be pretty backward in their attitudes and behaviors as well. Sometimes it is only the most misogynist women who are allowed to rise to the top of these patriarchal power structures.)
Another part of the solution is to demand that all police departments receive training from feminist anti-violence agencies on the dynamics of sexual and domestic violence.
And we should demand that all police forces adopt policies and practices that ensure that they take violence against women seriously, and that they further adopt special policies for when one of their own is accused of being a perpetrator. We need to hold officers who behave badly to account. We need to make sure that “the thin blue line” of police loyalty does not serve to protect the perpetrators in their midst.
I know a lot of really, really great police officers. It is not my intention here to paint all cops with the same brush. A lot of cops are really amazing at what they do. They are caring, compassionate, and extremely professional.
But it is not enough only to have “a lot” of good cops.
It is not enough, even, only to have the majority of cops be good.
We need to have them all be good.
And if police departments resist pressure to improve their practices and policies around violence against women, maybe we need to remind them just who they work for… They work for us. And if they have a problem with that, maybe they need to go work someplace else.