Trigger warning: The following op-ed includes discussion of rape, including some graphic details.
The prevailing myth about police is that they work “to serve and protect” the people from crime. Sometimes they may do that, but all too often the police are the ones committing crimes. I’m not just talking about petty crimes; I’m talking about rape and sexual assault.
Take the case of Milwaukee police officer Michael Vagnini. On October 9th, Vagnini was charged with non-consensually inserting his finger into victims’ anuses on the claim of “searching” his victims for drugs.
The FBI defines rape as “The penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object … without the consent of the victim.” By this definition, Vagnini raped multiple people while he was on the job. In one instance, he allegedly caused his victim to experience anal bleeding for days. In another, he added insult to injury by allegedly planting drugs on his victim.
Rather than serving and protecting, other officers chose to aid and abet. In one incident, Vagnini’s victim was held down by other officers while Vagnini raped him. Furthermore, the Milwaukee Police Department was aware of these incidents for “a couple of years.” They waited “until authorities recognized a pattern” before they did anything to hold him accountable. Translation: The police department was aware that Vagnini was committing rapes, but they waited to do anything about it until they had determined that he was a serial rapist.
This story is appalling, but sadly it is not unique. For example, in Utah police officers have been known to conduct “forced catheterization” searches, which consist of forcibly inserting a catheter into the victim’s urethra to perform drug tests. In 2004, Haley Hooper was held down by four officers while a catheter was inserted into her vagina. While this met the legal definition of object rape, her lawsuit was dismissed on the grounds that the officers were protected by “qualified immunity.” Officers involved in another forced catheterization were promoted rather than prosecuted.
These rapes happened under the cover of “searches,” but some officers are even more brazen. Craig Nash, a San Antonio police officer, allegedly raped a sex worker while he was holding her in custody. In this case, there was DNA evidence against Nash, which is more than many rape cases have. Yet Nash was able to plead down from sexual assault to “official oppression,” which only carries a sentence of one year.
Meanwhile, Nash’s victim, a transgender woman, was locked up in a men’s prison. There, she likely faced persistent sexual violence and harassment. If not, it was probably because she was placed in solitary confinement, which is widely considered a form of torture. Either way, Nash’s victim faced a harsher punishment from the state’s “justice” system than the man who raped her.
These are just a few examples. Charles Johnson of the Molinari Institute has documented many more cases like this in a short series of blogs titled “Rapists on Patrol.” But these are just the cases we know about.
Rape and sexual assault are notoriously under-reported crimes. According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, 54% of rapes in the United States are not reported to police. There are many reasons for this. For example, victims may justifiably fear that scrutiny will be placed on them more than on their rapist, and that the most intimate details of their personal lives will become fodder for victim blaming.
But when the rapist is a cop, the incentives not to report become stronger still. The rapist will be protected not only by sexist social norms, but by his powerful role in the criminal justice system. With such strong incentives for victims not to report, I think it is fair to conclude that the police rapes we’re aware of are merely the tip of the iceberg.
We are told that police are necessary to protect us from crime. But instead, police are committing truly appalling crimes. And for the most part, the legal system is protecting them while they do it.
Meanwhile, the state’s criminal justice system is woefully inadequate even at prosecuting rapes committed by ordinary citizens. According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, 97% of rapists will not spend a single night in prison.
To fix this, we need a new system — a system that holds all perpetrators of violence accountable, without the privilege and injustice that has always characterized the rule of the state.
Translations for this article:
- Dutch, Machtsmisbruikers.