How Did This Police Officer Get Away With Rape For So Long?

Photo: Sue Ogrocki/AP Photo
Daniel Holtzclaw, the Oklahoma City, OK, police officer charged with raping 13 Black women, was found guilty on Thursday night of 18 counts, including forcible oral sodomy, sexual battery, and five counts of rape. Holtzclaw wept openly as the verdict was announced. He faces up to 263 years in prison, including 30-year sentences on each of four counts of first-degree rape. He will be sentenced January 21. The case and the trial exposed some uncomfortable realities about race, gender, and power. Holtzclaw’s 13 victims were all Black, and many were low-income women with criminal records. Prosecutors accused Holtzclaw of specifically targeting low-status minority women because they would be less likely to turn him in. Holtzclaw targeted many of the women via traffic stops in a poor neighborhood and used threats of arrest or existing warrants to coerce women into sex. According to testimony in the case, Holtzclaw told one woman, “This is better than county jail” as he raped her. While the Oklahoma City police force that investigated the Holtzclaw case acted honorably and did its duty by investigating him, the fact remains that he targeted his victims on the assumption that their social statuses and situations would keep him from getting caught, and he was right. The victim who finally turned him in was a woman he targeted who had no criminal record and no history of drug abuse to discredit her. Many of his 13 victims were actually sought out by investigators as they compared his recorded traffic stops to searches for arrest warrants. The women never informed the police of what happened to them until directly asked. At a time when police interactions are under more public scrutiny, we have to ask ourselves: If Daniel Holtzclaw had been accused of brutally beating 13 Black men, would our responses have been different? The sad truth is that violence against women, particularly sexual violence and particularly against Black women, just isn’t seen the same way as violence against men. The Black Lives Matter movement has focused primarily on young Black men killed in altercations with police, which some activists have said minimizes the myriad of Black women who have also experienced violence. After Sandra Bland died in police custody in Texas in July, a social-media movement sprang up to bring awareness to the experiences of Black women. The movement used the hashtag #SayHerName to promote other stories like Bland's. Western society has, by actions if not by words, continuously perpetuated the idea that the lives and safety of minority women are simply not important. From the fact that media coverage for missing white women far outstrips that of nonwhite women to the fact that authorities can be openly dismissive of harm or danger to women of color, it’s not surprising that many women of color believe that their safety is not a priority. In 2012, the trial Marissa Alexander contrasted sharply with trial and acquittal of George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin. Alexander was sentenced to 20 years in jail for firing a warning shot as her husband threatened her, despite the fact that her husband’s own sworn testimony said he was “in a rage.” Prosecutor Angela Corey said at the time that the conviction and long sentence was because Alexander “was not fleeing from an abuser.” The problem is not limited to America. Recently elected Canadian Prime Minster Justin Trudeau made headlines earlier this week when he announced that his administration will investigate the deaths or disappearances of more than a thousand First Nations women who have gone missing in Canada over the past 30 years. Stephen Harper, who preceded Trudeau in office, repeatedly refused to investigate the crimes as part of a larger sociological trend, despite pleas from activists, saying that it “isn’t really high on [the administration’s] radar.” The mother of one of Holtzclaw's victims told the Associated Press after the verdict that she felt justice had been served. It is an undeniably good thing that the accusations against the disgraced officer have had their day in court, and that his victims have been treated fairly by authorities. But the factors that allowed him to commit his crimes in the first place have not changed. In the end, it was only chance and his own sloppiness that got him caught.

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