This week, lawmakers in New York passed a law that bans police officers from having sex with someone in their custody, reports BuzzFeed News. Previously, cops were allowed to have consensual sex with detainees or suspects. Despite the obvious power inequality, such encounters were not immediately deemed to be sexual assault. This legal loophole had also been used as a defense in incidents where the detainee alleged sexual assault by officers while in custody.
Local and state leaders lauded the new law. “I am proud that this common sense reform closes this egregious loophole once and for all, and I urge other states to follow suit,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo told BuzzFeed News.
“I am proud that our leaders at the state level have recognized the need to finally close this antiquated loophole and ensure that our laws on sexual consent align with basic common sense and human decency,” New York Council member Mark Treyger also said in a statement to BuzzFeed.
The case centers around a woman using the pseudonym Anna Chambers. In September 2017, Chambers alleges that two NYPD detectives, Richard Hall and Eddie Martins, raped her in the back of their police van. The detectives had detained Chambers for alleged possession of narcotics. Forensic evidence confirmed that Hall and Martins’ semen was discovered in the rape kit; they have both plead not guilty for sexually assaulting Chambers.
It’s the officers’ defense that pushed Chambers to come forward. The officers do not dispute that sexual activity occurred; they claim that the encounter was consensual. Prior to the new law, police officers could legally have sex with people in their custody, and the officers used this loophole to defend against allegations of rape.
Chambers began posting on Twitter and speaking to media outlets about her experience. She used social media to dispute news stories that she says are inaccurate, or that depict her in a unfair light. Chambers told the New York Post that police officers came to her hospital room during the rape kit to allegedly intimidate her into not pursuing charges. “This is nuts,” she wrote on Twitter, and included an image of the New York Daily News, which had printed one of Chamber’s selfies in an apparent effort to shame her.
She now uses Twitter to share her story and critically discuss issues of rape and sexual assault in the media. Her attorney, Michael David, appreciates Chambers’ willingness to speak out. “Usually an attorney tells their client to stay off social media, but in her case it was just the opposite,” he told BuzzFeed News last month. “I didn’t tell her to tone it down. It got her attention. It got her media pressure.”
That pressure worked. Chambers’ activism has persuaded New York state lawmakers to prohibit police from engaging in sexual activity with detainees and suspects in their custody. Now, such behavior will be investigated as sexual assault — which it is, because police hold authority over those they detain. People in their custody cannot truly give consent, as the power differential inherently includes elements of coercion and fear.
Thirty-four states still allow police officers to have consensual sex with detainees. Of the new law, Chambers told BuzzFeed News that “hopefully this is a start that will help public awareness and begin changing that police culture of sexual misconduct.”
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).