Abusive Cops

Article excerpt

Investigation uncovers nationwide problem of police officers sexually assaulting women

You never know what someone will say until you make that call.

So we were reminded when we phoned a disgraced former Philadelphia police officer on probation for joining his partner in sexually assaulting a stripper in the back of their squad car.

"Being honest with you, women do like cops," former cop Jimmy Fallon said. "Women love guys in uniform."

The interview with Fallon became one of the most startling aspects of a two-part series in The Philadelphia Inquirer that explored fresh territory in the otherwise well-trodden turf of police misconduct: sexual abuse.

It turned out that Fallon was quite an interview - an unrepentant font of sexual braggadocio. Fallon insisted that the dancer had consented to the sex. He clung to this view even though he and his partner had pleaded guilty to indecent assault and official oppression.

"Why would I have to threaten anybody?" Fallon asked. "I have the looks. I always did. I don't need to force myself on anybody."

Focusing on both local and national cases, we explored the locker-room mentality that sometimes afflicts police departments, how some officers use their badges to extort sex and how their departments too often ignore warning signs about their escalating misbehavior and fail to discipline abusive cops. That national review led to one of our most unsettling findings: In cities and towns large and small, the cases follow the same pattern.

Abuse studies

Most assaults take place during the night shift, when the hours are long and the supervision is thin. Once abusers cross the line, they attack again and again before they are caught. Unchecked, their misbehavior escalates. A cop might begin by picking up women while on the job, then move on to physical assaults.

Helping to blind their chiefs to the phenomenon, rogue police shrewdly select their victims by targeting runaways, strippers, prostitutes, drug users and others who would be less likely to complain and less likely to be believed if they did.

Once the abusers are caught, investigators who dig into their police work, such as reviewing reports of car stops, typically turn up a trail of earlier victims and discounted warnings.

We pored over records from civil and criminal trials from across the nation, tracked down victims and contacted the accused cops and their bosses. We were surprised to find that police commanders often fail to recognize the problem. We discovered that few departments address the issue in training and most don't keep track of such incidents.

In short, we tackled a problem that is underestimated and largely unstudied.

We did locate a few academics who had focused on the issue, including two experts from the University of Nebraska who completed a study called "Driving While Female." While groundbreaking, their report was wholly anecdotal.

Another study by researchers at St. Louis University was more limited in scope but somewhat more scientific. These researchers dug into police disciplinary records in Florida to determine that when police abused citizens, sexual abuse was the most common violation, exceeding such offenses as beatings or theft.

As we explained in our reporting, the academics had to tease their finding out of the records. The sexual nature of the abuse was often mislabeled; a demand for sex often got reported as seeking a bribe.

To tell the story, investigations editor Joe Tanfani helped us organize the material into a two-part series with multiple sidebars highlighting a mix of national and local misconduct. Photographers Barbara Johnston and Clem Murray took effectively ominous pictures for the project. The Web site at http://go.philly.com/predators was built by Jennifer Musser-Metz. Editor Amanda Bennett backed the project with generous space, including 21/2 inside pages for the first day. …