Gender and Sexuality Column

Police brutality conversations should extend to women, sexual violence

We rely on our police force to protect us with compassion and a desire to make the community a better place. Yet despite sporting a badge that demands respect, it seems it’s easier for some officers to disregard the values the police force upholds and abuse their power. Unfortunately, Syracuse is not immune to the effects of institutional racism and sexism.

In an ongoing local case, new details came forward this month that illustrate this exact problem. The ordeal dates back to December when Syracuse police officer Chester Thompson was charged with four counts of official misconduct after two women filed complaints of sexual assault against him. The most public victim, Maleatra Montanez, explicitly called the sexual encounter an incident of rape where Thompson used his badge as a threat in order to get her to comply.

Despite pleading guilty to the charges against him, Thompson was sentenced to three years of probation and did not receive any jail time. Thompson’s case was revived after Ed Sivin, the lawyer representing one of Thompson’s anonymous victims, has presented even more information from an internal report at the Syracuse Police Department that could uncover another victim.

It is our duty to ensure that people of all races and genders feel safe and protected by the individuals that we trust to do so. It’s the responsibility of police officers to push back on the growing, internal culture that promotes and turns a blind eye to violence.

By definition, police brutality is the use of excessive force toward a civilian by a police officer. While it has always been a public issue, the tension between the police force and minorities has escalated in recent years.

After the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012, the media has seemingly overflowed with stories of officers committing cold-blooded murder against people of color at alarming rates. Since then, news organizations, including The Guardian, have started tracking the number of people killed by members of law enforcement in the U.S. According to The Guardian’s database, 706 people have been killed by police officers so far in 2016, as of Sunday night.

Building on the Black Lives Matter movement, the #SayHerName campaign has shifted the focus from just unarmed black men to the women who fall victim to the badge. Cases of police committing heinous acts against women don’t often get media attention, but supporters of #SayHerName have made it their mission to not let these victims slip between the cracks of our system. We need to add faces and names to these victims: Sandra Bland, Korryn Gaines, Jessica Williams, Kisha Michael and so many others lost their lives because of an abuse of police power.

Even though Montanez was fortunate in that she was able to come out of this traumatic experience alive, the damage caused by it will likely affect her for the rest of her life. Survivors of sexual assault have to live with the effects of the crimes committed against them for life, and three years of probation is a mere slap on the wrist.

In response to the accusations, Thompson said in the official Syracuse Police Department report that he “didn’t think it would be a problem.” Well, to anyone in a position of power or of a mind that leads them to believe that rape is okay: it never is. A badge and a gun should not be a “get out of jail free” card.

Robin Riley, director of Syracuse University’s LGBT studies program and assistant professor of women’s and gender studies at SU, spoke about the complications of cases like Montanez’s.

“This is not an isolated case,” said Riley. “Often women coming into the police department with complaints as victims of crimes are routinely disbelieved or ignored. This is an extension of those practices and of course, makes abuse reports very, very difficult.”

The stigma attached to sexual assault makes women who are survivors of sexual violence by the police more reluctant to come forward. Because of this, it is important that all officers remain understanding and willing to listen. While not all officers are guilty of committing these violent acts, law enforcement needs to reinforce the values that they are supposed to defend. In order to do that, they must speak up for women and speak out against abuses of power.

Riley stressed the importance of society lending its ear to survivors of police brutality, especially when it comes to voices from marginalized groups. This openness to listening to police victims is a concrete example of how officers can work toward cultural change and restoring trust between the community and law enforcement.

“[We should] examine how one’s own behavior might contribute to the upholding of white supremacy, male supremacy or homophobia — that we might all work together to create safer communities for all,” said Riley.

We should acknowledge police violence and dig deeper, instead of forming opinions on this issue at face-value. Not only should the community hold police officers accountable for their abuse of power, but it’s also vital for law enforcement to mend the gap in understanding and be able to set the example for what is right, for what is lawful and for what is a breach in justice.

Ivana Pino is a sophomore political science major. Her column appears weekly. She can be reached at ivpino@syr.edu.

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