Police Sexual Abuse and Its Effects on Trust in Law Enforcement

Public mistrust of the police is reaching a peak in the wake of racially charged incidents such as those involving George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. The crimes of police sexual abuse, violence and misconduct are contributing to overall feelings of mistrust against law enforcement. When a police officer takes advantage of his or her position of power to sexually harass, assault or rape someone, the consequences can go well beyond the individual victim.

Police Sexual Abuse and Assault Statistics

It is difficult to quantify police sexual abuse due to the limitations of underreporting, fear of reporting and law enforcement agencies concealing reports. One study identified 6,724 arrests for police crimes in a seven-year period. Among these crimes, forcible fondling (5.2 percent) and forcible rape (4.8 percent) were among the top five most serious offenses charged. There were 1,475 arrest cases involving 1,070 sworn officers for sex-related police crime in this time period. 

This study found that serious cases of police sexual violence were typically not isolated events; the same officers would repeat sexual offenses if action was not taken against them. The study also identified children as most vulnerable to law enforcement sexual assault and found that almost one-half of known victims were children. The study identified a total of 422 forcible or statutory rape arrests among police officers, 352 forcible fondling arrests and 94 arrests for sodomy.

Betrayal of Trust for Individual Victims

Someone who is victimized by a law enforcement officer may never trust the police again. A child who suffers sexual abuse by a police officer, for example, may grow up not trusting the police or other authority figures. This can effectively silence the victim, who may feel that he or she has nowhere to report incidents of sexual violence.  

One study on violence against women found that procedurally unfair treatment by the police significantly decreased the likelihood of future victim reporting. This was true even when the study controlled for a victim’s prior perceptions of law enforcement. Police sexual misconduct and other examples of unfair treatment can allow perpetrators to continue committing crimes.

In some cases, victims are sexually abused by an officer after reporting a sex crime. Suffering a second sexual abuse incident at the hands of someone who should be protecting the victim can be the ultimate betrayal of trust – leaving the victim with nowhere to turn for protection or safety. In other cases, individuals are sexually abused by police officers during training or job-shadowing programs. This can interfere with the victim’s career and future.

Effects on Public Opinion of Law Enforcement

Police sexual abuse does not only impact the direct victims. As more studies are conducted and further information is revealed about police sex crimes, the level of public mistrust in law enforcement grows. Incidents of police sexual misconduct lead to a loss of faith in the entire institution. Too little accountability for police officers who are reported for sex crimes also diminishes confidence in the institution among the public.

An analysis conducted by the Social Capital Project found that national confidence in federal and state government institutions has declined significantly over the past 50 years. The report found that the percentage of Americans expressing “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the government fell from 44 percent in 1973 to 27 percent in 2018.  

Police officers failing to keep citizens safe and – in fact – harming them further by committing sex crimes is contributing to overall dissatisfaction with law enforcement. Significant issues such as police sexual abuse and a failure by law enforcement agencies to discipline reported officials have led to a national call for justice. If you or your loved one has experienced sexual harassment or abuse by a police officer, do not hesitate to contact Manly, Stewart & Finaldi for a free and confidential consultation with an attorney.