Black Women Victimized by Workplace Sex Harassment: Study

Researchers at the University of Massachusetts found that African-American women filed 27 percent of complaints about sexual harassment between 2012-2016, even though they account for just 7 percent of the labor force.

Black women account for a disproportionate number of sexual harassment charges in U.S. workplaces, a new research study reveals.

The study examined 46,210 claims filed under  Title VII sexual harassment discrimination charges between 2012-2016 with the U.S Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and state Fair Employment Practices Agencies (FEPAs).

According to the analysis, released this month by the Center for Employment Equity at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst , African-American women filed 27 percent of  complaints about sexual harassment during that period, even though they account for just 7 percent of the labor force.

The study also found that the majority of individuals who report sexual harassment experience experience retaliation from their employers.

Almost two-thirds—or 64 percent—of those filing sexual harassment charges report losing their jobs as a result of their complaint, said the study, adding that “high instances of job loss and retaliation are present across race and sex categories.”

“Sexual harassment remains a persistent and serious threat to women and men in American workplaces,” the researchers wrote. “While the vast majority of those who experience sexual harassment in the workplace never report this harassment internally nor file a formal discrimination charge, those who do are typically confronted by harsh outcomes.”

The results should come as a wakeup call to corporations and other businesses to take more proactive efforts to discipline managers, the study authors said.

“Sexual harassment, and perhaps discrimination of all types, should be addressed proactively and affirmatively as managerial responsibilities, rather than leaving it to the targets of discrimination to pursue legal remedies as individuals,” said the authors, Carly McCann, Donald Tomaskovic-Devey, and M.V. Lee Badgett—all of them researchers at the UMass Amherst Center.

The harassment complaints represent just the tip of the glacier.

According to the research study, about five million employees are sexually harassed at work every year, but 99.8 percent of them never file formal charges.

“Of those who file formal charges, very few—we estimate less than 1,500 per year—go to court,” the authors said.

Sexual harassment charges filed by women are least common in government, health care and social assistance and finance, the study found. They are most common in mining, warehousing, and transportation. In general female sexual harassment charges are higher in male dominated industries.

The analysis is one of many recent studies published in the wake of the #Metoo and #TimesUp movements. The researchers said they hoped the current wave of activism regarding sexual harassment in the workplace to lead to reforms that promote respectful treatment in workplaces, prevent sexual harassment and create safer, less abusive, workplaces.

Several large companies have already taken action.

CBS is now surveying its employees about workplace culture and implementing new programs to address workplace harassment in the wake of sexual harassment accusations against former CBS host Charlie Rose and former CBS CEO Leslie Moonves, Business Insider reports.

Though a recent study found that men underestimate the level of sexual harassment women face, the researchers in the present study found that almost 20 percent of all sexual harassment accusers are men.

The full report can be found here.

J. Gabriel Ware is a TCR contributing writer.


Men Underestimate Levels of Sexual Harassment: Study

A survey of citizens in the U.S. and 12 European countries found that males don’t understand the extent to which women experience sexual assault or harassment.  American men for example underestimate the true levels by almost half.

Men don’t understand the extent to which women experience sexual harassment, according to a new study published by Ipsos, a global market research and a consulting firm.

In a study that surveyed citizens in the U.S. and 12 European countries, participants were asked to estimate the levels of sexual harassment experienced by women since the age of 15 in their country. In each country, men give a lower estimate of sexual harassment than women.

In the U.S. specifically, men believed that only 44 percent of women have been harassed, although the actual number is nearly double that—at 81 percent.

The study found that people in general underestimated levels of sexual assault, but men were more likely to underestimate, and by larger percentage points.

Furthermore, the study found that while verbal sexual harassment was the most common form of abuse against women, 51 percent of women said they were touched and groped in an unwelcome way, while 27 percent of women said they had survived sexual assault.

The research was part of a larger study called “Perils of Perception,” that shows which key facts citizens across 37 countries get right about their society – and which they get wrong.

In regard to crime and in criminal justice, people in several countries were wrong about the scale of knife and gun crime in their country.

For example, in the United Kingdom, 71 percent of those surveyed believed that knives cause the most deaths, when they actually account for just 25 percent of all deaths by interpersonal violence.

Even though firearms account for almost 70 percent of all deaths through interpersonal violence in the U.S., only about 59 percent correctly identify guns as the nation’s biggest killer.

Furthermore, people in most countries think prisons are even more crowded than they actually are. On average people think prisons are 30 percent over full capacity when they are 9 percent over capacity.  However, the countries with the highest levels of overcrowding do tend to be the countries with the highest guesses.

In addition to crime and criminal justice issues, the researchers examined participants perceptions regarding climate change, sexuality activity, vaccinations and the economy.

A full copy of the report can be downloaded here.

J. Gabriel Ware is a contributing writer to The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.


#MeToo Behind Bars: Do the Feds Ignore Prison Sexual Assaults?

Under the Prison Rape Elimination Act, federal investigators must conduct audits of prison facilities to monitor compliance with standards aimed at eliminating sexual abuse. But an investigation by WitnessLA suggests the audits leave a lot to be desired.

In May, the Department of Justice launched a federal civil rights investigation into sexual misconduct by officers at New Jersey’s Edna Mahan Correctional Facility. It was the fourth such formal inquiry since 2016.

Since 2015, at least 11 lawsuits, including two class-action suits, have been filed against seven former Edna Mahan employees alleging they engaged in criminal sexual abuse of inmates.

Yet two separate audits by federal investigators during the years that inmates allege they were being sexually assaulted and abused found the facility to be in compliance with standards established under the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA). .

Their conclusions seemed to contradict a troubling pattern of allegations of misbehavior at the New Jersey facility.

In a civil lawsuit filed December 20, 2017, an inmate named Janean Owens alleged that since her arrival in 2009, she was sexually harassed and assaulted by multiple prison employees, six of whom she named in the complaint.

According to Owens, she was forced to give and receive oral sex, groped, and constantly stared at.

“I’m gonna tear you up,” one former corrections officer reportedly told her.

“I want to hit that,” another said repeatedly, according to the complaint.

When Owens complained to prison administrators, the officers retaliated. She was once kept in a television room for 12 hours without access to a bathroom, where she finally resorted to urinating on the floor, she said.

Officers glared at her menacingly, the complaint stated, and put her “in reasonable apprehension and fear of further assault and battery.”

The problem of sexual assault in jail has never been taken as seriously as the problem of sexual assault outside.

Everyone from superstar comedy duo Key and Peele to former FBI director James Comey have publicly enjoyed “prison rape” jokes in the last few years.

That was supposed to change 15 years ago with the passage of PREA by Congress in 2003, which led to the creation of a set of standards designed to “prevent, detect, and respond to sexual abuse in confinement facilities.”

As an incentive for states to comply with PREA, failure to do so can result in losing out on millions of dollars in federal grants, as happened in Utah. To ensure that those standards are being met, each detention facility covered under PREA must undergo a several days-long inspection by a certified PREA auditor every three years. Based on their initial findings auditors create a preliminary report, which includes a corrective action plan when necessary.

After 180 days, during which the facility is meant to make the prescribed changes, auditors return to do a final audit.

These final reports, unlike the preliminary audits and corrective action plans, are public record.

The ‘Rubber Stamp’ Factor

 In July, 2014 the Department of Justice sent auditor Ed Motley to determine how fully the Edna Mahan facility was in compliance with PREA standards. Two years later, in October, 2016, auditor William Willingham visited a second time.

Both auditors reported Edna Mahan was in full compliance. In one category–training staff in PREA awareness–Willingham reported that the facility exceeded what was required.

Willingham noted the presence of 90 cameras in the facility and wrote that there were no “blind spots” that the cameras failed to cover.

The claim of no blind spots was particularly perplexing since prison staff would later testify in the spring 2018 criminal trial of another Edna Mahan colleague that some units, such as the facility’s minimum security housing unit in which some reported assaults took place, had no cameras at all.

Willingham’ described “the facility staff” as “extremely courteous, cooperative and professional. Staff morale appeared to be good and the observed staff/inmate relationships were seen as appropriate…” he wrote.

At the conclusion of the audit, Willingham thanked the administrator and staff “for their hard work and dedication to the PREA audit process.”

These passages and others appear nearly verbatim in at least 12 other audits of facilities Willingham conducted between 2015 and 2018.

Lovisa Stannow

Lovisa Stannow, executive director, Just Detention International. Photo courtesy WitnessLA

Lovisa Stannow, executive director of Just Detention International, cites Willingham’s Edna Mahan report as an example of what she calls a “rubber stamp” PREA audit—a term she uses, she said, “in the classical sense that the auditor is using the same language in multiple reports about completely different facilities.”

Willingham’s Edna Mahan audit report is not the only one.

Stannow pointed to similarly incongruous reports at East Mississippi Correctional Facility, Mississippi’s Walnut Grove Correctional Facility, and Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center.

According to Stannow, Just Detention International has reviewed hundreds of audit reports that are “just blatantly sub-standard,” she said.

“We see audit reports,” she said, “where it seems like the auditors have not done even the most basic homework, where they have relied entirely on what corrections officials at the facilities they’re auditing are telling them.”

In 2017, the Justice Department provided a set of guidelines in their PREA Auditor Handbook, which laid down some rules meant to guard against these rubber stamp audits.

But the DOJ failed to institute any kind of enforcement mechanism to ensure that the new rules were followed.

 Congress Steps In

Late this fall, Congress passed a second round of fixes in the form of The United States Parole Commission Extension Act (HR 6896), which was signed into law by President Trump on October 31. HR 6896 amends the original 2003 PREA language to put some teeth into the system overseeing auditors, while also increasing the transparency of that oversight.

Stannow, whose organization aims to end sexual abuse in detention and who championed the new bill, said the new legislation is a good foundation for fixing the problem, but to fix it completely will require a culture change in correctional leadership.

A sensible corrections official that wants to make sure that he or she runs the best possible prison would obviously choose to get a thorough audit. And yet what we see is facilities, over and over again, hiring the sloppiest and most superficial of the auditors.”

American University law professor Brenda Smith agreed. “I think the audit function had problems from its inception,” said Smith, who was appointed to the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission when it was created in 2003.

Among these problems, said Smith, is the fact that facilities are allowed to choose their own auditor from a pool of certified auditors.

“The reality is that most of the auditors are acting as independent contractors, and for any number of them, this may be their livelihood,” Smith said, which creates a financial incentive for auditors to write up positive reports in hopes of getting chosen by facilities as often as possible.

HR 6896 is designed to address this and other conflicts of interest, stipulating that the DOJ-run PREA Management Office will create its own system for assigning certified auditors to federal, state, and local facilities.

brenda smith

Brenda Smith, American University Washington College of Law. Photo courtesy WitnessLA

A DOJ spokesperson told WitnessLA that the PREA Management Office is working on creating this new system, but she offered no details about how the system will work and no estimate as to when it will be up and running.

Another key provision in the bill intends to hold auditors accountable for the quality of their audits, stating that if an evaluation by the PREA Management Office finds an auditor’s work to be subpar or compromised, the auditor may be decertified.

The decertification must also be done in a transparent manner, according to the new law, meaning the auditor’s name and reason for decertification must be published and shared with any facilities that received an audit from that person within three years. The DOJ declined to comment on whether information about previously decertified auditors would be made public retroactively after HR 6896 became law.

“I would say that there has been a reluctance of the Department of Justice to decertify auditors, and that’s been a real problem,” Stannow said.

She added that it was previously not possible to find out whether former auditors were decertified “for cause” or whether they simply chose not to keep their certification up to date–an important distinction for jail and prison leadership in deciding whether a report by a no-longer certified auditor was compromised.

One issue that the new law does not address, according to PREA advocates, is the fact that the auditor pool is loaded with corrections officials. The PREA Resource Center and the PREA Management Office, two of the groups responsible for certifying auditors, said that they do not track the number of auditors who have corrections backgrounds.

But based on the review of hundreds of PREA audit reports, Stannow’s Just Detention International has determined the vast majority of active PREA auditors are current or former corrections officials.

This has one upside: someone with a background in corrections should have the knowledge to produce informed and credible evaluations of a facility. The downside is another potential conflict of interest, which could mean that a corrections official would be reluctant to give a negative report about a facility where friends and colleagues are working.

Los Angeles and PREA

Last year, auditors conducted the antithesis of a rubber stamp audit in Los Angeles.

The January 2018 report evaluated the Century Regional Detention Facility (CRDF), LA County’s large women’s jail located in Lynwood, CA, for its compliance with PREA standards. Over the course of 138 pages, the report—which was done at the request of the LA Sheriff’s Department— described in detail the jail’s failure to comply with 41 out of the 43 relevant standards.

The report represented approximately six months of work, including nearly three months of off-site preparations, and three days inside the jail. Among the failures auditors noted were that passersby could see some women’s bodies as they showered, and that vending machines and food pallets were placed in such a way that “could contribute to sexual abuse” by creating hidden alcoves.

They found that LASD hiring practices did not include asking potential hires about whether they had a history of sexual misconduct. And the team also discovered that not only were complaint boxes accessible to the deputies who might well be the subject of a complaint, but that an inmate in segregation who decided to report sexual abuse would have to hand her complaint directly to a deputy–again, possibly the subject of her complaint.

But the Lynwood jail report was never meant to be made public.

That’s because it was not an official audit at all. Instead, it was a field training opportunity for a cohort of seven auditor trainees, which included one attorney and six people with corrections or law enforcement backgrounds. The trainees were accompanied by six faculty from the PREA Resource Center and the Department of Justice.

Between the number of auditors investigating and, perhaps, the willingness of freshly-minted auditors to go the extra mile, their team effort resulted in an unusually thorough report–a report that only saw the light of day after the Los Angeles Times managed to acquire the lengthy document, and then posted the report on their site.

In addition to what the report revealed about the Lynwood jail’s overall environment, there are indications that much work remains to be done in making the facility safe for inmates. In February, LASD deputy Giancarlo Scotti was criminally charged with sexually assaulting six female inmates at Lynwood, between March and September of 2017.

And at least five former Lynwood inmates (some of whom are likely the same women mentioned in the criminal charges), have filed federal lawsuits against Scotti and the LA County Sheriff’s Department alleging sexual assaults by the former deputy.

Two of those lawsuits, involving three of the women, have recently been settled with LA County for $3.9 million.

Still, a common refrain among auditors and advocates is that PREA audits are not meant to be “gotcha” moments. The goal, they say, is to help facility leadership honestly assess staffs’ and inmates’ safety and then fix what needs to be fixed.

And to do that requires transparency.

“In general, American prisons and jails are incredibly closed environments, and unnecessarily so,” Stannow said. “We all need to demand to know what’s happening inside, because one of the reasons we have such a tremendous problem of sexual abuse in detention in the United States is that these are such closed-off environments.

“And when there’s no public scrutiny, that’s when ill-intentioned people have the ability to do horrible things.”

 This is a condensed and slightly edited version of an article that appeared in WitnessLA, part of an investigative series made possible with the generous support of the Fund for Investigative Journalism. The full article can be downloaded here.


Will Cosby’s Prison Term Be a Wake-Up Call to Prosecutors?

The entertainer’s 3-10 year sentence may empower more women to report assaults, but there’s still a long way to go before sexual predators are deterred by the threat of serious prosecution, says a former sex crimes prosecutor. One place to start: an annual “Report Card” from local DA’s about how they dealt with cases of rape and sexual abuse.

The sight of Bill Cosby being escorted from court in handcuffs to begin serving a three-to-ten year prison sentence didn’t make me smile, but it did give me a sense of hope that justice is possible for women in America.

Cosby spent decades brutally violating women’s bodies, and ruining their careers if they dared complain about his sexual demands. Now he looked downtrodden, and dejected, though not ashamed. His feelings about going to prison probably match the feelings his victims had when they woke up from a drugged stupor, in pain from neck to knee, coming face to face with a smirking Cosby, who sent them away like yesterday’s trash.

Cosby, like Judge Brett Kavanaugh during last week’s hearings, seemed incredulous that the word of a credible woman, without corroboration, should be enough to hold a man accountable.

Here’s a newsflash: the requirement of corroboration was abolished decades ago on the grounds that it was sexist, and unjustly prevented prosecution of rape cases. Nonetheless, prosecutors retain discretion to refuse to file charges for any reason, and they often do, especially if the offender is a man of influence.

Thus, if Andrea Constand had been Cosby’s only victim, he would not be in prison because, despite abolition of the corroboration rule, prosecutors, police and, more importantly, jurors, are permitted to discriminate against women. Simply put, the culture of our legal system makes clear to victims that if the only evidence they have against a man is their word, they should stay silent.

Colleges contribute to this sick mindset by treating women as second-class campus citizens when they report sexual assault.

Most schools have policies that subject sex discrimination, including sexual assault, to arduous investigations and unfair hearings that drag on for months and favor offenders, while harms based on race and national origin are resolved in a matter of days, without protracted investigations, and without anyone complaining that the offender needs more “due process.”

Title IX and Title IV of the Civil Rights Act mandate that sex-based harms be subjected to exactly the same gold standard treatment as harms based on race and national origin, but most schools mistreat women anyway, and point to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos as giving them authority to do so. A landmark lawsuit against DeVos was filed a year ago in federal court in Boston, asking the court to rule that schools must treat sex-based harms exactly the same as race-based harms, and that DeVos has no authority to discriminate against women, or permit schools to subject women to second-class treatment.

College women don’t complain about second-class treatment because they don’t see it. Like women in the “real” world, they accept second-class treatment as normal, often because groups claiming to be “advocates” for victims and proponents of Title IX tell them, falsely, that schools and prosecutors are following the law when they treat women poorly.

Is it any wonder most women never report sexual violence, on campus or in larger society, and that only two percent of rapists spend even one day behind bars; a number that hasn’t changed in decades?

According to the majority staff report of the Senate Judiciary Committee, The Response to Rape: Detours on the Road to Equal Justice, 28 (1993), only two percent of rapists see even one day behind bars. Additional confirmation of this figure comes from Reporting Rates, produced by the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, which also points out that the majority of reported rapes are never prosecuted.

Despite the fact that schools and law enforcement officials too normalize male supremacy by refusing to take action against an offender, Stanford’s Brock Turner and Bill Cosby have been held to account, to some extent. Three months was a woefully inadequate punishment for Brock Turner, and three years (minimum) in prison is not nearly enough for Bill Cosby, but both punishments are much longer than the sentences typically handed out in similar cases against men of similar social status.

Indeed, privileged males at elite universities rarely suffer any campus-based sanctions, much less criminal charges and incarceration. Brock Turner went to jail only because he was caught in the act by two eyewitnesses who were not his buddies, and thus not willing to lie for him. And Bill Cosby went to prison because, although he is a man of significant privilege, he had so many victims.

Both men also got in trouble because their victims were drugged, a factor that helped make it politically impossible for public officials to do nothing.

Most victims don’t realize they were drugged; they think they had too much to drink because they don’t know what being drugged feels like. And they don’t call police because the drugs cause amnesia, so they often cannot recall the details of what happened. Moreover, rape laws and campus rules are vague about what constitutes an offense when a victim is incapacitated.

In Pennsylvania for example, where Cosby was prosecuted, “incapacitation” means the victim must be completely unconscious. Another law requires proof that the perpetrator secretly caused the victim to consume the drugs. In other words, in Pennsylvania, offenders have legal permission to rape incapacitated persons, so long as there’s no proof the offender secretly drugged the victim, and she isn’t totally unconscious.

Bill Cosby’s trial helped teach the public about the prevalence and effect of rape drugs, while the Brock Turner case managed to hide the fact that the victim was so heavily drugged, she remained unconscious for hours after police brought her to the hospital.

Drugging victims is a convenient tactic that often enables an offender to avoid accountability simply because the victim cannot recall what happened. By the time she realizes she was drugged, the substances have dissipated from blood and urine. Few victims are informed by school or by law enforcement officials that drugging can still be proved by behavioral evidence, and by testing the victim’s hair. Rape drugs never dissipate from hair, and the latest technology can reveal with a high degree of certainty when the drugs entered the victim’s body.

While Cosby and Turner were sentenced to incarceration, other men of influence, such as Les Moonves, Charlie Rose, and Matt Lauer, merely lost their jobs, or faced civil suits. Justice for most women in the form of criminal prosecution has been elusive, with Harvey Weinstein being a notable exception.

Weinstein has been charged, and may well face incarceration when his case goes to trial, but as with Cosby, the pile of victims had to grow very high before the District Attorney paid attention.

This is unacceptable, blatant sex discrimination. One victim is enough.

The criminal courtroom is the people’s courtroom, and when violence against women does not receive its fair share of criminal justice resources, the violence gets worse and the public is denied access to truthful information about the extent of the problem, and the suffering women endure.

Notwithstanding the insidious mistreatment of victimized women in our criminal justice system, Bill Cosby’s incarceration is a cultural turning point, and a byproduct of many factors, including the #MeToo movement. #MeToo has provided a space for women to be heard when responsible officials and school administrators aren’t listening.

Led by an organic groundswell of anger, women have come together like never before around the issue of gender-based violence, and the public is finally starting to understand that a sexual assault against one woman is a sexual assault against all women.

Women have also begun to understand the importance of becoming politically active around the election of District Attorneys. Kevin Steele, the Montgomery County (Pa.,) prosecutor who filed charges against Cosby, ran his campaign on a promise to prosecute Cosby if elected. His incumbent/opponent refused.

Women need to elect prosecutors who value their lives, voices, and autonomous authority over their bodies. Too often prosecutors refuse to file charges out of fear that jurors will find reasonable doubt based on discriminatory ideas about a victim’s behavior or credibility. District Attorney Steele boldly confronted these systemic biases, rather than indulging them, and prosecuted Cosby without fear that jurors might judge Andrea Constand unfairly.

This is how all prosecutors should conduct themselves, but women need to hold them accountable.

For example, women can demand that candidates for District Attorney agree to release annual “Violence Against Women Report Cards,” showing how many rape and domestic abuse cases were reported to police and prosecutors; how many were declined for prosecution, and what happened to the cases that were filed, in terms of charges, convictions, and punishments.

Too often prosecutors reveal only the percentage of cases they won, rather than how many cases they accepted and rejected for prosecution. So a District Attorney who says he won 90 percent of his rape cases is actually hurting women if he prosecuted only ten cases, and refused to file charges in 800 more. And what does he mean when he says he “won” a case? If a prosecutor agrees to a plea-bargain and allows a rapist to plead guilty to simple assault and battery, that is a loss, not a win. Unless all the data on violence against women is revealed in an annual Report Card, women have no way of holding prosecutors (and judges) accountable for unequal justice.

Women have been oppressed for a very — long — time, and although Bill Cosby’s conviction will inspire more women to report rape, their reports will fall on deaf ears unless they demand equal access to justice, and equal treatment under the law. Prosecutors must no longer get away with citing tired excuses about the case not being “strong enough” to prove the charges beyond a reasonable doubt.

Victims are entitled to their day in court. Let a jury determine the evidence. Among other benefits, this will help “teach” jurors, hence the public, that all violence against women matters, and all women will be heard.

With prosecutors focused on justice rather than winning, more offenders will start to worry about being held accountable. That men do not expect to be held accountable is derived from male supremacy in the U.S. Constitution, which long ago declared women second-class citizens. The resulting sense of male entitlement is correlated with high rates of sexual assault.

Simply put, the space between equality and inequality is where violence happens with impunity under the law.

When he sentenced Cosby, Judge Steven O’Neill said, “No one is above the law, and no one should be treated differently.”

He was talking about Cosby, but he should have talked about women, and the violence they suffer because they are female. Judge O’Neill should have pointed out that women endure very high rates of abuse because the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause does not equally protect them, on par with men. To the contrary, women’s constitutionally mandated inferiority allows federal and state officials to discriminate on the basis of sex when they enact laws, enforce (or not) laws, and interpret laws in the courts.

The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which aims to repair the problem by establishing women’s equality in the Constitution, was passed by Congress in 1972, but was never ratified by the necessary 38 states. Nevada ratified ERA in 2017, and Illinois ratified earlier this year, making it the 37th state.

This means America is only one state away from full equality for women for the first time in history.

Wendy Murphy

Wendy Murphy

With unprecedented energy now driving the national conversation about violence against women, all people who care about the issue should mobilize and focus on ratification of the ERA because equality, not hashtags, will stop the violence.

And, not for nothing, karma would have a whole new meaning if the ERA made its way into the Constitution before Bill Cosby made his way out of prison.

Further Reading: Amid Kavanaugh Furor, Devos Ponders College Sex Rules

Wendy Murphy is a former sex crimes prosecutor and professor of sexual violence law at New England Law|Boston, where she also directs the Women’s and Children’s Advocacy Project. Follow her at @WMurphyLaw. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Domestic Abuse: Puerto Rico’s Women in Crisis

A dedicated network of psychologists, advocates and shelters has emerged to cope with the rise in domestic violence victims since last year’s Hurricane Maria. The challenge is complicated by the slow pace of reconstruction and the lack of government resources.  

Alba, 36, is a skinny woman who looks younger than she is.

Her body is covered with tattoos. In the middle of one breast, a drawing represents, “los golpes de la vida” (the hard knocks of life); another on her ankle ties her to her sister forever; on her arm, another recalls the cancer that killed her father.

On her back are a number of butterflies—symbols of the fragility that marks her life.

When Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017, it left Alba’s house, located in the countryside surrounding Cayey, a small community on the southeast of the island, severely damaged and without electricity.

But Alba (at her request her full name is withheld to protect her identity) suffered more than house damage as a result of the storm.

Puerto Rico

Alba (left), a victim of domestic violence and Luz, her legal intercessor, during an interview at the Hogar Nueva Mujer in Cayey. Photo by Mirko Cecchi

“In the midst of all our desperation,” she recalled. “My partner and I argued even more violently; he left, and I tried to take my life.

“I cut my veins and took some pills.”

She woke up in the hospital. After treatment for her injuries, Alba returned home with her two children, aged 18 and 7, from a previous relationship. There was no trace of her partner until Dec. 22, when six shots, fired in the dark, hit her car parked in the street, and pockmarked the outer wall of the room where the boys slept.

“I knew it was him because the day before, he must have seen my ex-husband come to bring a present to my children, and he must have done so out of jealousy,” she said.

Four days later, Aurora won a protection order from a judge and, on a friend’s suggestion, moved to Hogar Nueva Mujer (New Women’s Place), a women’s shelter in Cayey.

She joined hundreds of other women who have fled abusive spouses or partners since the hurricane, reflecting what women’s advocates on the island have called an “astronomical” increase in domestic violence.

According to John Jay College Prof. Jodie Roure, who works with human rights and women’s organizations in Puerto Rico, the number of 911 calls skyrocketed from 211 in the immediate aftermath of the storm to 889 the following month—with some 1,747 calls received through November, 2017.

In an earlier interview on Criminal Justice Matters, Roure said, “the lack of access to food and electricity has exacerbated stress” in many families hit hardest by the storm, and contributed as well to a number of “murder-suicides” related to domestic conflicts.

The problem has not abated.

Alba is one of 223 victims of domestic violence that Hogar Nueva Mujer assisted between September 2017 and February 2018—36 more than those recorded in the same period between 2016 and 2017. Like some of the other victims of violence, she didn’t use 911 to call for help—relying instead on a friend’s recommendation—which suggests that the number of women fleeing abusive relationships after the hurricane may be even larger.

Puerto Rico

Vilmarie Rivera, director of the center for women victims of domestic violence, Hogar Nueva Mujer. Photo by Mirko Cecchi.

Vilmarie Rivera, the director of Nueva Mujer, said the center has increased its security protection as it tries to cope with the rise in demand for its services.

“We had to ensure that no volunteer was actually an attacker, but it was also a good time to allow the victims to approach us, with any excuse,” said Rivera, who noted that some women come just to take advantage of the laundry, to pick up medicines, or obtain food for their families.  In that period the center had the only electricity generator in the area.

Nueva Mujer—which works primarily on the housing problem by supporting victims of violence in finding a home and starting new independent lives—is one of eight shelters for Puerto Rican women active before the hurricane, and one of five that did not have to suspend the activities because of the damages suffered.

It helped find Alba a new house, and put her in touch with entrepreneurship courses that will help her build a new life. One of her goals is to open a small cosmetic business.

“I knew they would help me,” she says. “But I did not imagine so much.”

Rivera, like all gender-related activists on the island, believes that violence against women after the hurricane has increased further, but the actual numbers are still hard to obtain.

Vilma González, director of Coordinadora Paz Para las Mujeres (Peace for Women Coordinating Center), says the most recent data on domestic violence provided by Puerto Rico’s Office of the Women’s Advocate comes from 2016.

“I sent a message requesting the cases divided per month in 2017 but they have not answered,” said Gonzalez.

Rivera says there are other challenges as well.

“There’s no protocol (by the government) to address the danger which women faced,” she said in an interview.

As a result, many women have stayed with abusive partners “because they have not seen an alternative.”

Like Jodie Roure, Rivera blames the increase in domestic violence on economic hardship caused by the storm.

“Women have lost their jobs and men counted on that salary, plus many men were also unemployed,” she said. “Despair brings nervousness, anger, frustration.”

*“The hurricane has demonstrated the total failure of the system and has brought out inequality: Poverty in Puerto Rico has a woman’s face, but there are no public policies for them.”

In Vega Alta, a small town on the northern coast of Puerto Rico, Hogar Ruth (Ruth’s Place) has been active since 1984. Despite the lack of funds and supplies, and the damage caused to the building by the hurricane, it has never stopped providing shelter to the victims and their children.

“Today we have 21 guests, divided into 8 rooms,” explained coordinator Damaris Feliciano in an interview last month.

“During the hurricane we were 42. The women who knocked on our doors were not only victims of violence but pregnant girls or women with newborn babies who did not want to stay in the insecure and unhealthy camps organized by the government in schools or in gyms.”

Hogar Ruth dealt with 182 cases of domestic violence between October and December 2017, almost three times the number of those helped in the same period in the previous year (63).

Katalina (a pseudonym), who arrived at the shelter on Oct. 11, 2017, was one of them.

She moved to the island seven years ago, following a Puerto Rican man she met in her native country, Ecuador, with a newborn in her arms.

“As long as he came to visit me, everything was fine but as soon as we got here, he changed,” Katalina recalled. “He treated me as if I were stupid, as if I was always wrong, and also spoke badly to the child.

“The house where we lived was not a decent place to raise our daughter but I was here alone; I did not know who to ask for help and he kept us like prisoners.”

The hurricane and its aftermath somehow gave Katalina the courage to escape her situation.

“After seven years, I could not stand it anymore, and when Maria came, it was really too much,” she recalled. “One day I accompanied him to his sister’s house, she saw me cry and although we did not get along very well she handed me the number of a judge.”

After hearing Katalina’s story, the judge issued an order of protection—one of the 442 issued throughout Puerto Rico between September 20 and mid-October 2017. She and her child were then escorted by police to her house, where she was then helped to pack up her belongings and move to Hogar Ruth.

Hogar Ruth, as a transitional emergency hotel, shelters women for a maximum of 90 days before moving to their new home. But Katalina’s partner violated the order by going to her daughter’s school, and the shelter considered it safer to postpone their transfer.

Meanwhile, other institutions are using federal grant money to pay for psychological counseling to victims of domestic violence.

puerto rico

Cynthia Garcia Coll of Albizu University, San Juan. Photo by Mirko Cecchi.

Cynthia Garcia Coll, a psychologist and professor of human development at Albizu University in San Juan, received $400,000 from the Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) program to provide psychological and legal assistance to domestic violence victims at the university’s clinic.

The university, which describes itself as the “first professional school of psychology in North America and the Caribbean,” set up a clinic to house the program in January, 2018, staffed by 16 advanced psychology doctoral students, four supervisors, two lawyers, and two legal intercessors who prepare victims of domestic violence for court testimony.

“After the hurricane, our project has taken on an even more important meaning,” said Coll.

During its first three months of operation, the clinic has worked with 14 women affected by the hurricane.

“We call them victims of victimization facts,” said Coll. “Domestic violence is often just one of the problems to be treated, and just one of the factors that has led people to find themselves in their specific situation.

“If [these] factors are not addressed, the risk of recurrence is very high: women often go from one violent relationship to another, and the epilogue can be tragic.”

In the absence of good data, one woman has begun to chronicle those tragedies on her own.

Carmen Castello

Carmen Castellò operates her Facebook site on murdered or disappeared Puerto Rican women out of her apartment.

Carmen Castelló Ortiz, a former social worker, devotes a good part of her day to registering cases of missing women or victims of femicide.

Puerto Rico

A gallery of the women who have disappeared in Puerto Rico since the hurricane, prepared by Carmen Castellò, administrator of the facebook page, Seguimiento De Casos. Photo by Mirko Cecchi

The computer in her small apartment in one of the island’s towns holds dozens of folders where she archives cases she finds in newspapers. The information includes photos of the victims, data reported by the police, and a brief summary of events which she then publishes on her Facebook page “Seguimiento De Casos (Tracing of Cases).”

In the aftermath of the hurricane, Ortiz has recorded a number of heart-rending stories, such as a 78-year-old woman who was murdered.

“For me, they are like family,” Ortiz said, as she scrolled through the faces of the women whose tracks have been lost. “I do not know if I could survive if one of my loved ones disappeared.”

But information and details are still hard to get. The island’s Public Security Department released in mid-October a list with 33 other missing women.

Gonzalez of Coordinadora de Paz Para Mujer fears that behind these numbers there may be human trafficking.  But  Puerto Rico’s overworked police force—which experienced a walkout earlier this year over complaints of missing overtime pay—has not been able to investigate further.

That has left Carmen as the missing women’s sole voice.

Claudia Bellante

Claudia Bellante

“I want to keep the attention, encourage the police to work more and better, so these women are not forgotten,” she says.

But the work of Puerto Rico’s advocates for women may only have just begun. The next hurricane season in the Caribbean begins in less than two months.

Claudia Bellante is an Italian freelance journalist who writes on Latin America. She has published articles in Internazionale, El País, The Caravan, and Rhythms Monthly. Photos by Mirko Cecchi at  Readers’ comments are welcome.


News Staff Decline Threatens US Justice Coverage: Study

In its annual review of crime and justice coverage in US media, Criminal Justice Journalists warns that shrinking newsrooms mean fewer eyes on the statehouses where much criminal justice policy is made.

The continued decline in staffing in news outlets throughout the nation has reduced the media resources available to cover crime and justice, according to the latest annual review of crime journalism in the US.

“Over the last 15 years, the workforce of U.S. newspapers shrunk from 412,000 employees to 174,000 (and) the number of reporters covering statehouses—where much criminal justice policy is made—has declined even further,” said the report by Criminal Justice Journalists (CJJ), citing figures quoted by Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan.

The annual CJJ review released Wednesday notes that immigration issues, the opioid crisis, sexual abuse scandals, and the continued spate of mass shootings received the most intense attention from the media during 2017.

But public interest in these topics has not helped the print media overcome the decline in readership spurred by competition from online sources.

“Newspapers are not the only source of local reporting, of course,” the review said. “Television and radio stations, and community newspapers, continue to thrive in many areas; (and) websites have filled some of the gap left by the erosion of daily newspapers.”

In one of the starkest examples of the trend, the CJJ Review pointed to the Charleston, W. Va., Gazette-Mail, which earned a Pulitzer Prize in 2017 for its reporting on the prescription drug epidemic. Last month, the family-owned, 37,000-circulation paper filed for bankruptcy. (The Gazette-Mail said it was seeking bids from new owners.)

“Crime and justice always have been staples of local reporting, and that hasn’t changed,” the CJJ said. But it warned, “There is bound to be less of that reporting as the number of people doing it on a regular basis is much diminished in many U.S. cities.”

Rubén Rosario

Rubén Rosario

The annual review by CJJ, the only national organization of crime and justice reporters, is sponsored by the John Jay Center on Media, Crime and Justice (publisher of The Crime Report) and supported with a grant from the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.

The review was prepared by Ted Gest, president of CJJ and the Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report; and Rubén Rosario, Metro columnist for the St. Paul Pioneer Press and a CJJ board member.

The review noted key findings from an analysis by Andrew Tyndall of news coverage by the nightly news programs of the three major networks:

  • The most-covered crime stories were mass shootings: the killing of 58 concertgoers in Las Vegas by Stephen Paddock, followed by the attack on members of Congress at a baseball practice in northern Virginia, and the massacre at a Texas church in which 26 people were killed.
  • Seven of the top 20 stories on all subjects had some criminal justice element, leading with the investigation into possible Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections and including President Donald Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey, the White House ban on travel from Muslim-majority nations, and the immigration crackdown generally.

One subject that received less national media coverage last year than it had in previous years was crime in Chicago, where homicides in recent years had hit the highest levels in two decades. That is because the total dropped in 2017. This Chicago Tribune summary said that the year’s murder count was down 15 percent, or more than 100.

Ted Gest

Ted Gest

Even later than the FBI report was the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics’ annual victimization survey, which on Dec. 7 estimated 5.7 million “violent victimizations” in the nation in 2016 but said that because of a redesign of the survey, there could not be a precise comparison between 2015 and 2016.

Newsweek magazine reported that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had misrepresented his own agency’s statistics by saying in a speech, alluding to that report, that there had been a 13 percent spike in the violent crime rate.

“The report he was citing clearly said there had been no measurable change,” Newsweek said.

The fallout from pledges by President Trump and Attorney General Sessions to take a tougher line than the Obama administration on crime and punishment, which shifted Department of Justice policies and raised concerns among reformers and advocates, received noteworthy attention from major national media, including the Washington Post and the New York Times.

“Return of the war on drugs” was the front page headline in the Washington Post on Sunday, April 9. The story featured Sessions’ hiring of federal prosecutor Steven Cook of Knoxville, Tn., an advocate of tougher federal sentencing. The Post reported that Sessions and Cook “are eager to bring back the national crime strategy of the 1980s and ‘90s from the peak of the drug war.”

The following day, in “The Rise and Fall of Federal Efforts to Curb Police Abuse,” the New York Times described another Obama-era policy likely to fall under Trump, the use of consent decrees to impose reforms on policing in cities across the nation. Then in June, the administration replaced the National Commission on Forensic Science with an in-house task force. The Washington Post reported on this, as well as on the suspension of an effort to set uniform standards for forensic testimony and to widen a review of FBI testimony on several controversial techniques.

Another notable example of Trump policy coverage was published by the New York Times on Nov. 22 under the headline, “Dept. of Justice Eases Scrutiny of Local Police.” The newspaper said that many police chiefs lamented the demise of the Justice Department’s “collaborative reform” program in which police departments got Justice Department advice on best practices. The article attributed the conversion of the program to “technical assistance” in large part to the Fraternal Order of Police, which believes that the previous effort was too burdensome on rank-and-file officers.

Immigration Coverage: “A New Standard of Negativity”?

Turning to immigration, the CJJ review observed that the Trump administration’s vow to crack down on undocumented residents made the issue 16th on the top 20 story subjects covered during the year in the annual analysis compiled by analyst Andrew Tyndall of stories covered by the three major broadcast networks in their nightly news programs.

Moreover, a study by Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy of media coverage of President Trump’s first 100 days in office found that immigration was the single most covered subject during the period, commanding 17 percent of coverage by the major media (health care was second, with 12 percent).

The study assessed the tone of coverage, finding that overall coverage of Trump “set a new standard for negativity,” with 80 percent of it judged to be negative. Notably, immigration received far the most negative coverage of any topic, by the Shorenstein Center’s assessment, with a full 96 percent of stories judged as negative.

One reason that so much of the coverage is deemed negative may be that news stories often point out misstatements by President Trump and his associates.

For example, on Aug. 10, reported on Trump’s repeated references to the 2015 killing of Kate Steinle in San Francisco by a man who had been deported from the US five times and who then re-entered the country illegally. (The man was recently acquitted.) Early in his presidential campaign, Trump said, “Public reports routinely state great amounts of crime are being committed by illegal immigrants.”

Slate countered: “This is not true. Study after study shows undocumented immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than the general population, and crime rates in cities with large immigrant populations have fallen disproportionately. Regardless, the lie that undocumented immigrants are likely to be violent criminals would help propel Trump to the GOP nomination and ultimately the presidency.”

Much of the local coverage has dealt with aspects of the “sanctuary city” question, with many stories about the administration’s threats to withhold federal aid from jurisdictions that don’t cooperate with federal authorities on detaining undocumented immigrants. Many big city mayors and police chiefs have not complied, arguing that many citizens, both legal residents and others, will not cooperate with law enforcement on any issue if they could be threatened with deportation.

Police shootings and misconduct were another set of issues that drew national attention again last year. The CJJ Review singled out the Washington Post as one of the few national media outlets that have closely following the problem of police misconduct since the 2014 Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, MO.

On Sunday, Aug. 6, the newspaper published results of a major investigation headlined “Fired/Rehired,” concluding that since 2006 at least 1,881 officers had been fired by 37 large police departments. Some 451 of them appealed and won their jobs back through rulings of arbitrators.

Opioids: Deaths (and Media Coverage) Increase

Media attention to the opioid crisis has tracked the rising overdose death totals especially in the Rust Belt states of Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. CJJ singled out CBS’ “60 Minutes” and the Washington Post for an investigation broadcast and published on Oct.15, which reported that Congress in the spring of 2016 stripped the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) from its strongest weapon against drug companies that are suspected of providing large quantities of prescription narcotics to the public. The law made it virtually impossible for DEA to freeze suspicious drug shipments from the companies.

The reporting had at least one significant result: It highlighted the fact that the legislation had been spearheaded by Rep. Tom Marino (R-PA), who had been nominated by President Trump as the director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (popularly known as the “drug czar.”) After all the publicity, Marino withdrew his candidacy.

Another notable example of coverage came from The Cincinnati Enquirer, located in the heart of the area most affected by the opioid epidemic, which published a special report on Sept. 10 headlined “Seven Days of Heroin: This Is What An Epidemic Looks Like.”

As described by Nieman Storyboard, during one week in July, the newspaper sent more than 60 reporters, photographers and videographers to document the impact of heroin in the Cincinnati area. They went to jails, courts, methadone clinics and psychiatric hospitals. The reporting included witnessing overdoses, listening to 911 calls, attending recovery meetings and riding with police officers who were looking for users and dealers. They tallied 18 deaths and 180 overdoses during the week.

Nieman Storyboard called the paper’s effort “a riveting portrait of the human face of heroin. Instead of a traditional narrative, the project was presented largely as a series of chronological vignettes, interspersed with photos, social media posts, 911 recordings and rap lyrics. The mixed-media collage effectively showed that virtually no local geography or institution was left untouched by heroin.”

These and other stories are indications that the media have covered the opioid crisis both as a public health emergency and as a criminal justice challenge. This contrasts with the treatment of the crack cocaine surge of the 1980s, which was mostly reported on as a law enforcement issue.

Sexual Harassment’s Media Moment

Sexual abuse in the U.S. may not have increased, but news media coverage of it  intensified, the CJJ said, noting that “it seemed that hardly a week went by in late 2017 before another celebrity was accused of harassment, some of it dating from decades earlier.”

The issue exploded onto the front pages in early October, when the New York Times published an extensive report that Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein had quietly settled at least eight sexual harassment complaints over three decades. It was not clear in early 2018 that any of the numerous accusations against Weinstein would lead to a criminal case, but the Weinstein story set the backdrop for a number of other prominent charges against entertainment and media figures as well as politicians, such as U.S. Sen. Al Franken (D-MN), who was pressured to resign after he was accused of abuse in several cases.

The news media themselves were hit by a barrage of major departures over sexual harassment charges, including Matt Lauer of NBC, Charlie Rose of CBS, Michael Oreskes of NPR, and Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker.

“The news media is supposed to be a surrogate for the public, and most Americans don’t like the thought that our surrogates are living in and endorsing workplace environments in which sexual harassment now seems to be too common,” Jeffrey McCall, a professor of media studies at DePauw University, told The Hill.

“Further complicating the media’s image in all of this is the sanctimonious manner in which the media has covered sexual harassment in other corners of society,” McCall said. “It is difficult for the news media to parade around as haughty overseers of right and wrong in broader contexts of society when they clearly have in-house confusion about first principles of decency.”

Kelly McBride of the Florida-based Poynter Institute, a longtime writer on media ethics, says that many media policies on reporting sexual harassment are behind the times, limited to rules such as “Because of the stigma associated with sexual assault, we do not publish the names of victims.”

McBride issued a challenge to news organizations:

Rather than starting with a policy that tells us what to avoid, what if our policies encouraged us to tell the story of sexual assault more completely, so that the public might understand how it happens and how to prevent it? Today’s policies presume that our journalistic motive for telling a sexual assault story is rooted in our urge to improve public safety. But sexual assault isn’t really a public safety problem; it’s a public health problem

This is a condensed version of the CJJ report. The full copy can be downloaded here. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Sex Workers Fight Efforts to Link Prostitution with Trafficking

As the campaign against sex trafficking emerges as a $47 million cottage industry, it has also spurred a “moral panic” that sex workers say has made them increasingly vulnerable to police abuse, and turns them into targets for those with religious or moral objections to prostitution.

At the height of national outrage over what government officials and activists call a human trafficking “epidemic,” sex workers are challenging what they say are misleading and harmful efforts to link prostitution to sex trafficking.

“People have used this moral panic, this idea that there is a trafficking epidemic, to create so much funding and so much policy that now that they’re being pressured to show the evidence—to show the sex trafficking arrests,” said Tara Burns, researcher and founding member of the Community United for Safety and Protection (CUSP), a group of former and current Alaska sex workers allied with sex trafficking victims.

“That’s where we see police arresting [prostitutes] for sex trafficking themselves, just so they can get those sex trafficking numbers up, and match the moral panic they’ve created.”

CUSP is lobbying for the passage of companion bills (HB 112/SB 73) in the Alaska Senate and House which would expand sexual assault laws to explicitly prohibit law enforcement from sexual contact with trafficking or domestic violence victims—as part of its continuing campaign to protect sex workers from laws that make them “vulnerable to violence and exploitation.”

In California, another group is challenging a state law that criminalizes prostitution, and asking a federal court to allow for a closer examination of studies that link consensual sex work to sex trafficking.

In January, a three-judge panel in the 9th circuit dismissed a suit by the Sex Workers and Erotic Service Providers Legal, Educational and Research Project (ESPLERP) to declare unconstitutional state laws that make prostitution a crime. The panel sided with 13 state and national organizations that wrote in to oppose ESPLERP, arguing that prostitution needs to remain criminalized in order to combat the “attendant evils” of violence against women, drug abuse—and above all, sex-trafficking.

ESPLERP filed for a rehearing before the full 9th circuit on January 31, wanting the court to subject the studies it cited to a higher standard of review. But in an era when pornography has been declared a “public health crisis” linked to modern-day slavery, researchers who do not openly condemn prostitution are fighting an uphill battle—and sex workers themselves find it hard to be heard over the din of victims’ advocates who would speak for them.

9th circuit

ESPLERP members and their legal team in court on Oct 2, 2017. Photo courtesy of Maxine Doogan

Maxine Doogan, founder of ESPLERP, says that denying sex workers equal protection under the law has led directly to abuse by police and other authorities, and that she and other people in the industry cannot report actual cases of forced trafficking without fearing arrest themselves.

“There are many people, many women, that I know who are prostitutes, who have been caught up in these prostitution sting operations; and have been sexually assaulted by the police, and raped,” she said in an interview with The Crime Report.

“Our activity is illegal. and so that just gives license for anybody to do anything to us that they want at any time, and get away with it.”

In the document submitted to the California court, opposition groups argued that “prostitution is sexual coercion, and closely related to sex trafficking,” and that “decriminalization of prostitution will legitimize sex trafficking.”

The authors of the opposition brief cited numerous “authorities” for their argument, identifying in particular eight publications by Melissa Farley, a clinical psychologist and anti-pornography activist well known for her view that sex work is “a particularly lethal form of male violence against women,” and an expression of “male hatred of the female body.”

“To the extent that any woman is assumed to have freely chosen prostitution, then it follows that enjoyment of domination and rape are in her nature,” Farley wrote in a 2000 article for Women & Criminal Justice.

But according to independent scholars in the field, the majority of the publications cited in the opposition brief have not only been debunked, but also discredited in the Canadian Supreme Court during cross-examination. The court subsequently struck down Canada’s anti-prostitution laws, finding them unconstitutional because of the negative impact they had on the safety and lives of sex workers.

Doogan notes that victim advocates are “not challenging the men who really have control over our world.”

She added: “They want to dismiss the sexual violence that we’re talking about that goes on with police.”

Doogan and other sex-worker advocates argue that the majority of people being rounded up and arrested during anti-sex-trafficking sweeps such as Operation Cross Country are not slaves held in bondage, but women working together, or as independent prostitutes– a claim supported by investigative journalists following this arrest data.

CUSP’s Terra Burns, who has analyzed thousands of charging documents from several states over the past five years, said that the most serious cases of child sex trafficking “are for the most part not cases that are being found in prostitution stings, [but] cases that are being found because somebody came forward and made a report.”

And in jurisdictions that aren’t aggressively charging people for prostitution, more sex workers are coming to police with tips, she added.

Burns, who herself was sex trafficked as a child, has lobbied extensively for legislative amendments in Alaska. She helped push through bills at the state and county level to allow immunity for sex workers reporting a crime, and hopes Alaska legislators will place priority on the proposed measure to make it illegal for police to sexually penetrate someone they were investigating.

“When an officer coerces you into having sex with him under the threat of arrest, or another kind of threat, that is an act of violence,” Burns said.

Police don’t need to have sex with someone in order to charge them with prostitution, but it happens. She describes one charging document where a police officer paid for a hand job at a massage parlor. “They could have arrested her right there, but instead he waited and got a hand job. and then he put her in handcuffs. And when that happens, it’s really traumatic.”

alaska legislature

Doogan (left) and Burns, introducing their first bills. Photo courtesy of Terra Burns

Other charging documents, published on CUSP’s website, describe police having multiple sex acts with women before arresting them.

The Alaska Department of Law as well as the Anchorage police continue to oppose the no-sexual-contact bill, and it has stalled for almost a year.

See also: ‘Invisible No More:’ The Other Women #MeToo Should Defend

In addition to government task forces, the anti-trafficking movement has also created a $47 million cottage industry of victim advocacy.

Significantly, in order to receive funding, organizations are still being asked to sign a Bush-era anti-prostitution pledge (also known as the “global gag rule”), even though it was ruled unconstitutional in a 2013 Supreme Court decision.

The same goes for researchers, according to George Washington University sociologist Ronald Weitzer, who has studied the sex industry and human trafficking for over three decades, and who served as an expert witness in the case before Canada’s Supreme Court. Before the gag rule was overturned, he was asked to sign the pledge in order to conduct an academic literature review for the National Institute of Justice.

“It’s shocking that even something as mundane as a literature review in this area becomes politicized,” he told The Crime Report.

More recent examples include University of Nevada researcher Barbara Brent, who was part of a 2014 task force developing a trafficking education program for first responders in Nevada.

In an email to The Crime Report, she wrote: “Participants, including Las Vegas Metropolitan Police, who receive federal trafficking funds, indicated that I could not include sex worker rights organizations on the team to develop programs because that violated their grant agreement. The task force eventually fizzled out, and I don’t know what happened to those efforts.”

Last year, the New Hampshire Human Trafficking Collaborative Task Force broke ties with its grants manager, Kate D’Amato, for apparently supporting decriminalization during a public event. The Manchester Police Department said D’Amato’s opinions violated a federal grant, though it is unclear whether that claim was ever challenged.

“What it means is often you’ll get religious or evangelical organizations, both in the US and internationally, to get funding for anti-trafficking work but have very little expertise in the area,” said Weitzer.

“And this was a major criticism of the bush administration funding for many of these anti-trafficking organizations during that period.”

For example: Priceless Alaska, a Christian anti- trafficking organization that works closely with law enforcement, engages a team of volunteer mentors to work with trafficking victims. By way of preparation, mentors receive a three-day training. According to its website, the training “focuses on the mentor’s personal spiritual development first and sex trafficking-specific training second.”

Among the organizations that signed on to the ESPLERP opposition brief was Covenant House, the largest privately funded agency in the US that provides services to homeless and runaway youth. Last year, Covenant House worked with Loyola University to produce a multi-city report on forced labor and sex trafficking. The report claims that one in every 5 homeless youth are victims of human trafficking.

In Anchorage, that number was even higher: “Study: 1 in 4 homeless youths in Anchorage victims of human trafficking,” the local headline read.

But Burns, who has been collecting state and county arrest records for over five years, says that the data don’t add up, and that the report is intentionally misleading.

“Nobody’s been charged with trafficking a minor in Alaska since 2008,” she told The Crime Report.

In 2014, following the national trend, Alaska created the Special Crimes Investigation Unit, which is devoted to finding and rescuing juveniles who are being trafficked for commercial sex.

“They’ve existed with that mission for four years now,” said Burns, “and have yet to charge anybody with trafficking a minor.”

The problem with the Loyola report, according to Burns, is the way it switches between various definitions of a sex trafficking victim; from youth that are not involved in the commercial sex industry at all, “youths that are underage and just trading sex for survival means,” and youths who are being coerced or held in bondage and commercially trafficked.

“If [Loyola researchers] had talked to a youth who actively had a violent pimp, they would have had to report that to police and the police would have gone in— because they’ve been looking to charge somebody with trafficking a minor, obviously, to support all this rhetoric. We would see some charges if it were actually going on in that way,” Burns said.

But when “you’re not being honest about what you’re actually talking about, and then you’re turning around and saying ‘oh these kids are being kidnapped by pimps and forced into prostitution’— then the policy that ends up being created is not going to serve those actually kids that really exist–that are out there having survival sex right now.”

Fundamentally, Burns believes that this study—and others like it—are compromised by the “religious agenda” underlying the moral campaign.

“Covenant House and Loyola University are both religious organizations who have a religious agenda to prevent other people from having sex that they disapprove of,” she said.

What Burns has found by looking at thousands of charging documents is that the majority of people arrested in “sex trafficking” stings are women working together as prostitutes, or with a driver—both things that increase safety in the sex industry, she says.

Just three people were charged with sex trafficking in the first two years of Alaska’s new sex-trafficking law. One was a dancer charged with sex trafficking herself, according records Burns obtained.

Another was Amber Batts, the owner of the online escort service Sensual Alaska. Prosecutors were unable to charge her with force, fraud, or coercion, since people were working for the service of their own free will– but they still convicted her on charges of 2nd degree sex trafficking. She was sentenced to five years in prison.

“When you think of sex trafficking, you think of people that are held against their will and made to do things that they don’t want to do,” Batts’ sister, Tiana Escalante, told The Crime Report.

Escalante described being shocked to learn that a woman can be charged with sex trafficking in Alaska for a consensual act—even when she is working independently.

“I think it’s kind of outrageous. It’s her body, her right to choose.”

Meanwhile, despite the funding for sex trafficking “rescue” operations, Burns says that as a first responder she has been unable to get law enforcement to investigate two recent cases where victims were held against their will and sold for sex. In the first case, she said the FBI told her there was not enough evidence.

“I’ve been involved in or around criminal investigations for quite a bit,” she said. “There was so much evidence, there were text messages.”

In the second case, she said, despite having an admission from a violent pimp on social media, “the FBI told me they didn’t have time.”

A year ago, Burns helped one victim who was violently trafficked make a report to the FBI, and managed to get her money from the state Victims of Violent Crimes Compensation Fund.

“But the people from the violent crime compensation board actually called me up and let me know, ‘you won’t be able to receive this money on her behalf because we can’t give money to organizations that don’t oppose prostitution,’” she said.

Describing people who have illegal sex as being incapable of making a choice, or too corrupted to understand their own victimhood, isn’t a new strategy.

“It’s very similar if you look at the history of the laws against gay sex and the stigma around gay people… you look back and remember [people said] ‘well, there’s only gay because they were abused as children. And so the gay people are going to go out and they’re going to rape our children,’” Burns said.

“That’s the same kind of stigma that we see around the sex work. Well, prostitutes are all either victims, or they started out as victims and now they’re going to go and victimize somebody else.

“Imagine if you saw the same kind of rhetoric around domestic violence victims. Saying that domestic violence victims need to be arrested because they’re too morally damaged to know what’s good for them.”

This is precisely what Doogan and her cohort are trying to face down in court. As a sex worker and founder of ESPLERP, she insists that she is not a victim.

“If you were a victim advocate, I wouldn’t even bother talking to you,” she told The Crime Report. She calls them the “Anti’s.” “I think that they’re extremely tone deaf.”

“They’re treating us like the sex slaves that they think that we are. That’s the problem with their approach. I stopped talking to them because they don’t want to hear, and take responsibility for their own exploitative behavior.”

Members of the media are some of the worst perpetrators of this narrative violence, says Doogan, “renaming us, reclassifying us, stripping us of our agency.

“We have been barred from our own authority on these issues.”

Those interested in watching oral arguments in ESPLERP v. Gascon can view them here. Victoria Mckenzie is Deputy Editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes readers’ comments. 


‘Invisible No More:’ The Other Women #MeToo Should Defend

Minority victims of sexual assault by law enforcement have often been ignored by reformers seeking to improve police-community relations, says attorney Andrea Ritchie. In a conversation with TCR, Ritchie, who assembled a database of 300 such cases, including transgendered, lesbian and gay victims, argues the issue should also be part of the nationwide focus on combating  sexual harassment.

Calls for reforms aimed at improving relations between police and the communities where they work have tended to leave out an important constituency: minority women, including those who are transgendered or gay.

That’s the message Andrea J. Ritchie, an author, attorney, activist and scholar, repeats at each stop of a current tour promoting her book “Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color,” published last year.

The proof, she says, is reflected in ongoing headlines about #MeToo—a movement mainly of white women alleging sexual harassment and assault by powerful men—and the comparative lack of attention to #SayHerName, a hashtag emerging from a report by Ritchie and Professor Kimberlè Williams Crenshaw of the University of California at Los Angeles and Columbia University School of Law. The African American Policy Forum published that report, entitled “Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women,” in 2015.

Invisible No MoreRitchie, a Barnard College researcher-in-residence and former Soros Foundation Social Justice Fellow, speaks from personal experience. She says that being a black lesbian who was once sexually assaulted by a police officer factors into her research and advocacy. She told Katti Gray, The Crime Report contributing editor, that her current efforts include trying to persuade the New York Police Department to ban its practice—a common one, nationwide—of having police investigate allegations of sexual assault and harassment by police. She’s well aware, she adds, that Chicago Police Department union leaders blocked a similar attempt at establishing civilian review of alleged police rape last year. Here’s an abridged version of Ritchie’s conversation with Gray.

 The Crime Report: In her foreword to “Invisible No More,” scholar and former Black Panther Party activist Angela Davis called it a very difficult book to read. Was it hard for you to write?

 Andrea J. Ritchie: I was sifting through reports, watching videos, looking at photographs and speaking directly to some of these sexually assaulted women and girls, and their families, and the relatives of women killed by police. I was witnessing people’s pain and vulnerability and their sense of betrayal by a society that largely ignores these crimes.

There were so many stories that I worried about which to cut from the manuscript. If I cut them, the public would never know what happened. So I also created a database of these cases on the book’s website. It contains 300 cases right now; we’re about to update that to add about 100 more. And these are not all the stories that are out there. If a person had filed a lawsuit against police, that case was already being told publicly. There are cases I came across where I felt we had to protect someone’s identity, fearing they would face retaliation for speaking up. Sometimes, the assaulted women are necessarily kept anonymous.

Yes, writing this book was hard. At the same time, it was healing. Bringing these issues to light, hopefully, will lead to action that makes these things not happen again.

TCR: How far back in history are these cases you write about?

 Ritchie: Back to the1950s, when the Civil Rights Congress, through its We Charge Genocide report, chronicled a number of cases of police violence against black women and girls.

But, in actual reality, these crimes started in 1492 when Christopher Columbus landed on these shores and began committing violence against indigenous people and indigenous women … and in [the 1500s] when blacks were first brought here as slaves.

TCR: Of all the stories of police violence against women in “Invisible No More,” which did you find the most searing?

 Ritchie: The ones that strike me make it so clear that these controlling, mythical narratives about black women and indigenous women, which are rooted in slavery, still operate in policing today.

In one case, a 12-year-old black girl had stepped outside to flip a circuit breaker back on while her mom was cooking in the kitchen. The police—who’d been called to pick up three white girls for prostitution—decided to arrest that 12-year-old black girl for prostitution instead. When they went after her, she started screaming for her mom … Eventually, the police officers showed up at her school to charge her with resisting arrest. You do not see this child as a child? You see her through nothing except the lies told over and over again about black women being promiscuous, involved in the sex trade, inherently criminal.

Another that sticks in my heart is of a Native American trans woman I met in Los Angeles more than 10 years ago … Police detained her, assaulted her, then threw her out of the car afterward and said “Yes, you are Native … We can do anything to you that we want.”

Another story: When a black woman on her stoop in Chicago laughed because a police officer couldn’t catch someone he was chasing, he punched her in the stomach and said, “You, black bitch.” He deliberately assaulted her as a mother and assaulted her child … He sent her into premature (delivery) later.

I could tell you story after story that enraged me. I cannot think of just one that makes me cry or keeps me up at night. They all do.

 TCR: What do the data suggest about women who are assaulted by police?

 Ritchie: The data are limited. When these crimes are counted, it’s when people report them to the media or file civil complaints. In that way, it’s clear that those who are sexually assaulted, predominantly, are black and other women of color. And police deliberately target women least likely to report.

Of the available data, one national study, conducted by a former police officer [Bowling Green State University Professor Phil Stinson] of [548] officers arrested for misconduct showed that 73 percent of sexual assault victims whose age was known were less than 18 years old. [After that 2014 study, the U.S. Justice Department funded Stinson’s study, released in 2016, of more than 6,700 police arrested nationwide. It chronicled 1,475 arrests of 1,070 sworn officers on charges of sexual misconduct.]

Many of these victimized women are in the drug trade, sex trade, or are women who are homeless, transgender, domestic violence survivors, sexual assault survivors. Police have deliberately targeted lesbian, and sometimes say they are—by sexually assaulting them—trying to show lesbians another path.

 TCR: You suggest that even among black social and political activists there is too little focus on crimes against black women. What do you mean?

 Ritchie: I’d reframe the question a bit. Black women, among ourselves, do organize around and tell the stories of violence against black women. I do agree, though, that, in the mainstream narrative, in the media, those black women’s stories are not placed in the foreground.

Also, black women often will speak at a rally about violence against their child or their husband but not against black women. We’ve internalized this notion that state violence happens to black and brown men, and private violence happens to white women.

TCR: Black women see speaking up as problematic?

Ritchie: Yes. But telling our stories does not take away from the experiences of black and brown men … I believe more women would come forward if they thought there would be protests on their behalf and the same kind of outrage that’s expressed when a black or brown man is shot down by police.

Often, the condemning comments on articles I’ve written are from black men, saying “Here come black women, gay ones, trying to take the spotlight away from us and our oppression.” That hurts. I’ve been on the street protesting the killing of every single black man that I could. I have fought for policies that protect all of us. There is so much opportunity for solidarity. [Georgetown Law Professor and former federal prosecutor] Paul Butler’s book, “Chokehold: Policing Black Men” talks about how men also are sexually assaulted by police. This work isn’t about dividing, it’s about fighting for change together…

It’s about leaving no one behind and looking at all of our experiences to understand the extent of the problem and come up with a full solution, instead of half a solution.

 TCR: In your years of litigating, researching, writing, and protesting on this front, what has changed, and what hasn’t?

 Ritchie: Particularly in the last three or four years, the level of awareness has risen significantly. That’s because of the work of the Black Youth Project, the African American Policy Forum, the Ferguson uprising and others. The Sandra Bland case helped catapult this to the forefront.

 What hasn’t changed is how much those experiences still do not inform our analysis of the issues and the strategies we use to resist bad policing and advance police reform.

What I’m looking at now is the question of how women’s experiences change the conversation. How do you hold police accountable for assaulting women of color in the same way that you hold them accountable for use of excessive force? How does excessive force affect women differently? Most departments have no policy about limitations of force against pregnant women. It’s not about just saying another name at a rally. But it’s about shifting the focus and the demands we make, and the reforms we pursue, and really rethinking approaches to all of this.

TCR: What are some examples of the changes you espouse?

 Ritchie: It can range from very specific things like rethinking mandatory arrest policies, which grows out of concern that domestic violence isn’t taken seriously enough. Police don’t really change how they behave when they respond to calls for help. Black women often are treated as perpetrators rather than survivors of violence. Eliminate that mandatory arrest policy. That would involve a more holistic, community-based approach. It involves the community asking, “What is contributing to this violence? What makes it seem OK to abuse someone in a private relationship? How can we take responsibility for that, instead of calling the police? How can people in the community rally to stop that?”

There are examples of communities that have domestic violence response teams. If you speak to elders in some communities, you’ll hear them say there was a time when the family sat down and said, “This will not happen again” to the perpetrator.

 TCR: Where are there active examples of that?

 Ritchie: I don’t necessarily want to point these out as models, per se, but Spirit House in Durham, N.C. does just what I was talking about. Creative Interventions has a handbook about how to respond to domestic and other violence in your community. The Audre Lorde Project in Brooklyn has created a program for LGBT people around police violence and community crimes. Those are just a few examples.

TCR:  You’ve pointed out some differences in the #MeToo and #SayHername movements.

 Ritchie: My recent op-ed for The Washington Post highlighted the reality that this heightened national conversation on sexual violence needs to shine the spotlight on sexual violence by police officers. To the extent that we are raising our hands and saying “me, too” we need to have a response regarding women of color who are assaulted by the very people we’re supposed to turn to protect us, but who are getting away with these crimes.

The Crime Report contributing editor Katti Gray covers criminal justice and health, mainly, for a variety of publications. She welcomes your comments.


Report Finds ‘Systemic’ Lapses in Justice Dept. Sex Complaints

The Justice Department’s inspector general says supervisors have mishandled sexual misconduct complaints. Some perpetrators escaped discipline or were even later rewarded with bonuses or performance awards.

The U.S. Justice Department has “systemic” problems in how it handles sexual harassment complaints, reports the Washington Post. Justice supervisors have mishandled complaints, according to the department’s inspector general, and some perpetrators were given little discipline or even later rewarded with bonuses or performance awards. The cases examined by the IG’s office include a U.S. attorney who had a sexual relationship with a subordinate and sent harassing texts and emails when it ended; a Civil Division lawyer who groped the breasts and buttocks of two female trial attorneys; and a chief deputy U.S. marshal who had sex with “approximately” nine women on multiple occasions in his U.S. Marshals Service office, according to investigative reports obtained by the Post.

“We’re talking about presidential appointees, political appointees, FBI special agents in charge, U.S. attorneys, wardens, a chief deputy U.S. marshal, a U.S. marshal assistant director, a deputy assistant attorney general,” Justice Department Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz said in an interview. On May 31 — before the issue exploded into the national consciousness — Horowitz sent a stern memo about sexual harassment to Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who said he would consider whether additional guidance to Justice employees was required. “It is fortunate that there are relatively few substantiated incidents of sexual harassment, but even one incident is too many,” Rosenstein said in a statement at the time.


Philadelphia Pays $1.25M in Police Sex Harassment Case

Philadelphia paid $1.25 million to settle a lawsuit by a woman who claimed a veteran police commander sexually assaulted her when she was an officer in a department in which she said sexual harassment was pervasive.

Philadelphia paid $1.25 million to settle a lawsuit by a woman who claimed a veteran police commander sexually assaulted her when she was an officer in a department in which she said sexual harassment was pervasive, reports The commander, Chief Inspector Carl Holmes, remains on the job eight months after the payout, but the fallout may not be over. Mayor Jim Kenney’s spokesman said the mayor found the case “extremely troubling, from start to end.” Although Kenney did not call for anyone to step down, as he did after a much smaller payout to settle similar claims against city Sheriff Jewell Williams, he left open the possibility that the city’s new top prosecutor may launch his own review.

The allegations against Holmes are a decade old. But the settlement came during a year in which similar and damning allegations against powerful men in the workplace have surfaced almost daily, leading to a national reckoning in Hollywood, the media, and politics. The judge overseeing the case offered a pointed assessment before the city agreed to resolve it. The accuser, the judge wrote, “has provided sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to conclude the City knew of its specific problems with sexual assault and harassment in the police department … but did little or nothing to stop such conduct.”