Invisible No More NPR coverage of Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color by Andrea J. Ritchie. News, author interviews, critics' picks and more.
NPR logo Invisible No More

Invisible No More

Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color

by Andrea J. Ritchie

Paperback, 324 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $21 |


Buy Featured Book

Invisible No More
Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color
Andrea J. Ritchie

Your purchase helps support NPR programming. How?

Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: 'Invisible No More'

"What is the first image that comes to mind when I say police brutality?" It's a question I started asking in 2004 when I began facilitating workshops on the policing of women and LGBTQ people of color, which I developed with Sheba Remy Kharbanda, a South Asian artist, activist, and former colleague at Amnesty International. Years later, I still ask that question and, years later, the answer continues to be something along the lines of a white cop beating a Black man (almost always imagined as heterosexual and cisgender) with a baton. Rarely has sexual violence been the first response. If it does come up, the image of the person targeted is Abner Louima, a Haitian man who was sodomized by NYPD officers in 1997. It is not the daily sexual harassment, assault, and violation experienced at the hands of police by women of color across the United States. Yet once it is named as a form of police brutality, invariably, at least one person at my workshops shares a story of sexual violence by a police officer, often one that they have never told a soul about.

At the 2004 National Coalition on Police Accountability conference, a man who identified himself as a former member of the Black Panther Party approached me at the end of the workshop. He said that his sister had been raped by a police officer "back in the day," but he had never understood what happened to her as police brutality until he had heard it framed that way in the workshop. I asked him how he and his sister had described her experience. He answered, somewhat bewildered, that it was "just something bad that happened." He then thanked me for opening his eyes as to how his sister's experience fi t into the work he had been doing all his life to challenge state violence against Black people.

At my next workshop, a daylong gathering in post-Katrina New Orleans, when the issue of police sexual violence was raised, a middle-aged Black woman stood up and told the group that she had been raped by a cop when she was fourteen years old but before that very moment had never spoken to anyone about it. Everyone sat stunned, unsure how to respond. There were no resources to point her to, no campaign she could join, and, frankly, none of us even knew how to comfort her in that moment of remembering her raw pain, violation, and betrayal by an armed agent of the state, and of breaking a silence held too long. When I asked her afterward why she had chosen that moment to disclose her assault, she simply said it was the first opportunity that had presented itself. She had never before been in any space where the story "fit" into the conversation; she had never heard anyone talk about sexual violence as part of the fabric of police violence, or about police as perpetrators of sexual violence.

Similarly, as we were conducting research for the 2005 Amnesty International report Stonewalled: Police Abuse and Misconduct Against LGBT People in the United States, many of the trans, lesbian, and queer survivors who courageously came forward to share stories of sexual violence at the hands of police had never reported their violations to the authorities out of shame or fear that they would not be believed, fear of exposure of their sexual orientation or gender identity, of retaliation, of deportation, or of being charged with a crime because they were engaged in sex work or the use of controlled substances.

Almost a decade later, Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw's rape and sexual assault of at least thirteen Black women and girls came to light. I first learned of the case from two grassroots organizations, Black Women's Blueprint (BWBP) and Women's All Points Bulletin

(WAPB), which, in September 2014, a month after Holtzclaw was indicted, drafted a shadow report to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination that highlighted the case as a compelling example of ongoing state-sponsored sexual violence against Black women in the United States. The submission argued, as did submissions I and others made to the UN in 2006 and 2008, that sexual violence by state actors such as Holtzclaw amounts to torture. Early on, bloggers such as Kirsten West Savali placed the Holtzclaw case in the larger context of mounting protest over police killings of Mike Brown and Eric Garner. As word of Holtzclaw's assaults spread, outrage grew among local activists, Twitter users, and bloggers, fi rst at the news that Holtzclaw had been released on bond and that a Facebook page in support of him had been set up, and later at mainstream media, local and national anti–police brutality groups and antiviolence organizations for not paying more attention to the case. Holtzclaw's trial and conviction eventually garnered national coverage when an all-white jury was selected to hear his case. Many asked whether Holtzclaw wouldn't more quickly have become a household name had he assaulted thirteen white women.

Holtzclaw's pattern of sexual violence came to light when Jannie Ligons, a fifty-seven-year-old Black grandmother who runs a day-care center in Oklahoma City, was driving home from a late-night domino game at a friend's house through the Eastside, a low-income Black neighborhood. Holtzclaw pulled her over and ordered her to step out of her car, put her hands on the hood of his car while he patted her "all over," and then sit in the backseat of his patrol car. Eventually, he forced to lift her shirt and expose her breasts, and later her genitals, then perform oral sex on him. Jannie described the scene: "I was out there alone and helpless, didn't know what to do." She later said, "I was looking at that gun in his holster and I'm saying to myself . . . he's going to shoot me in the head. I was really afraid." But, as Jannie told Democracy Now listeners, "He just picked the wrong lady to stop that night." After Holtzclaw left her at her daughter's house, she immediately went to a police station to report what had happened to her. This kicked off an investigation in which Detective Kim Davis of the sexual assault squad tracked down women Holtzclaw had been in contact with, and used the GPS tracking device on his car to corroborate their stories of sexual violence. Thirteen Black women eventually came forward to participate in his prosecution.

Most women Holtzclaw targeted said he stopped them as they were walking down the street and questioned them about what they were doing and where they were going. He often forced them to expose their bodies to show that they weren't hiding drugs in their bras or pants, much as Audrey Smith was ordered to on a Toronto street corner. Often Holtzclaw would go further, opening his fly and demanding oral sex, sometimes taking the women home or to deserted areas to rape them— in his patrol car, on their front porch, or in their bed. In some cases, like that of his first victim, Sharday Hill, whom he first assaulted while she was handcuffed to a hospital bed, he would show up at their houses again and again. Sometimes he targeted "working girls"—people he believed to be engaged in the sex trades. He often used the fact thatwomen had outstanding tickets or warrants to pressure them. Even if they didn't have any, the threat that he could charge them was enough. One victim, T.M., testified, "I felt like even though I didn't have no warrants that he might make up something on me and send me into jail anyway." He clearly targeted women he thought would never come forward and accuse him. T.M. said later, "I didn't think nobody was going to believe me anyway. . . . I'm a drug addict." Another victim, C.J., asked "Who are they going to believe? It's my word against his because I'm a woman and, you know, like I said, he's a police officer." Holtzclaw was tried and convicted in December 2015. His defense consisted of denying the abuse and claiming that his accusers were lying, untrustworthy, inconsistent, high, and women with "an agenda" based on past criminal histories. Ultimately, the jury found Holtzclaw guilty of eighteen of thirty-six charges involving eight of the thirteen women who came forward, and he was sentenced to 263 years in prison.

The case prompted the Associated Press to conduct a yearlong investigation, which revealed that one thousand officers nationwide lost their licenses between 2009 and 2014 as a result of their sexual violence. Two earlier studies of revocations of law enforcement licenses in Missouri and Florida found that sexual misconduct was the basis for revocations in almost 25 percent of cases. And those are only the officers who were caught and held accountable—law enforcement officials and advocates alike will tell you these numbers are just the tip of the iceberg. Holtzclaw's case and his targets were unusual only in that he was caught, convicted, and sentenced to 263 years. Sadly, the experiences of the Black women who had the courage to come forward to testify against Holtzclaw are all too similar to those I have heard over the past two decades in countless workshops, "know your rights" trainings, and public forums—stories that rarely see the light of day, let alone command national headlines or animate our organizing.

Daniel Holtzclaw is far from the first police officer to have used the power of the badge to violate those he is sworn to serve and protect. And unfortunately, he won't be the last. In fact, Holtzclaw's predatory ways are eerily reminiscent of those of Eugene, Oregon, police officer Roger Magaña, convicted in 2004 of sexual assault and rape of a dozen women over an eight-year period. Like Holtzclaw, he preyed on women criminalized through the "war on drugs," broken windows policing, and the policing of prostitution, as well as survivors of violence and women labeled as mentally ill. Magaña would threaten arrest and then trade leniency for sexual acts. In some cases, Magaña used the pretext of conducting "welfare checks," unscheduled visits where offi cers gain entry into private homes by simply stating that they believe a person's well-being is at risk. In other instances, he conducted invasive and abusive searches of women on the side of the road. Magaña also threatened to retaliate against women if they reported him: one woman described Magaña putting his service weapon against her genitals and saying he would "blow her insides out" if she told anyone. This intimidation, along with indifference to the problem in the police department, allowed Magaña to engage in this conduct with impunity for almost a decade before his assaults came to light. Like the Holtzclaw survivors, many of the women who eventually came forward said they initially did not report the assaults because they feared they would not be believed. And their fears proved to be founded: police fi les indicate that at least half a dozen officers and supervisors heard complaints about Magaña's sexual violence over the years but dismissed them as the "grumblings of junkies and prostitutes."

Echoes of the Magaña case resonated again in 2016 when the DOJ investigation of the Baltimore Police Department revealed a number of instances in which officers had extorted sex from women in the sex trades in exchange for leniency, and that the department had conducted shoddy and incomplete investigations that had led to no consequences for the officers involved. In the intervening decade, researchers have consistently documented patterns of inadequate investigations of police sexual violence.

The widespread, systemic, and almost routine nature of police sexual violence remains largely invisible to the public eye, though it chronically festers on the streets and in alleys, squad cars, and police lockups. A 2015 investigative report by the Buffalo News cataloguing more than seven hundred cases concluded, "In the past decade, a law enforcement official was caught in a case of sexual abuse or misconduct at least every five days." A national study of officer arrests for sexual misconduct between 2005 and 2011 found that one-half of the cases involved on-duty sexual offenses, one-fifth forcible rape, and almost one-quarter forcible fondling, and that almost one-half targeted minors. The study further notes that "distinctions between on- and off-duty police crime are often difficult to make" and that off-duty sexual offenses are often facilitated by the power of the badge or the presence of an official service weapon. According to the Cato Institute, sexual misconduct is the second most frequently reported form of police misconduct, after use of excessive force. Yet it is clearly not the second most frequently talked about.

The reasons for the seemingly impenetrable veil shrouding sexual abuse by officers are many and complex. One is a lack of data. As of 2016, there are no official statistics regarding the number of rapes and sexual assaults committed by police officers in the United States. To the extent that sexual assault by state actors has been documented at all, it has been in detention facilities such as jails and prisons. The limited data gathered by federal and state governments on the use of excessive force by law enforcement officers do not include information on the number of allegations, complaints, or incidents of rape, sexual assault, or coerced sexual acts. Similarly, data gathered by the federal government on overall prevalence of rape and sexual assault do not include information concerning the number of perpetrators who are police officers and other law enforcement agents. In the absence of official data, law enforcement authorities can continue to sweep the issue under the rug—and, when it does come to light, claim that it is dealt with swiftly and decisively through discipline and criminal prosecution. Likewise, government can continue to act as though the issue doesn't exist: when I testified before the Prison Rape Elimination Commission, one of the commissioners told me it was hard to take action against police sexual violence without concrete data. Thus, sexual violence by police remains what former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper dubs a "nasty little secret."

Invisibility is also perpetuated in part because, in the absence of official data, our understanding of police violence is shaped by research studies based on complaints and media reports. It is estimated that only one-third of rapes and sexual assaults are ever reported. This rate is no doubt far lower among women who are raped by the very law enforcement agents they would have to report to. As Penny Harrington, former Portland chief of police, points out, "The women are terrified. Who are they going to call? It's the police who are abusing them." Many survivors—like the woman I met in New Orleans, like the Holtzclaw survivors, like me and many others who have told me their stories over the years—don't report incidents out of shame or fear that they will not be believed. Some survivors fear exposure of their sexual orientation or gender identity, retaliation by police officers, or criminal charges or deportation because they are undocumented, are involved in sex work, or are using controlled substances. Some may fear coming forward in isolation, in the absence of support from anti–police brutality or antiviolence advocates. Or, as Joo-Hyun Kang, director of Communities United for Police Reform, once suggested to me, maybe sexual violence by the police just becomes part of a seamless web of sexual harassment, assault, and violence that begins for women of color in the morning

when they take the garbage out and are whistled at by their neighbor, continues with endemic sexual harassment at work or school, and ends when they are propositioned or groped during a stop by a cop on the way home. Simultaneously ordinary and out of the ordinary.

Even when a woman takes the risk to lodge a complaint, there is the question of whether it will be recorded, taken seriously, and covered by the media, particularly given that officers are known to target individuals whose credibility will be challenged. By its very nature, sexual violence is hidden away from public view, witnesses, and cop-watching cameras, making it more likely that complaints will be deemed unsubstantiated. Because officers can often rely on threats of force or arrest, there are often no injuries requiring immediate medical attention and therefore no "evidence" beyond a woman's word.

As a result, researchers almost universally caution that because of these limitations, documented cases "may represent only the tip of the iceberg." Yet, even in the absence of official data and the limitations of other sources, sexual violence by law enforcement is one of the areas in which the greatest amount of social science research on women's experiences of policing exists.


Following a rash of reports in 2009 and 2010 of cases of sexual assault by police, in 2011 the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) issued guidance defining the problem of "police sexual misconduct" for local law enforcement agencies. According to the IACP, the term is intended to encompass a broad spectrum of activity:

• Sexual behavior while on duty, including "voyeuristic actions"

• Unnecessary contacts or actions taken by officers for personal or sexually motivated reasons such as unwarranted callbacks to crime victims or making a traffic stop to get a closer look at the driver for nonprofessional reasons

• Inappropriate touching during stops, searches, and detention

• Sexual "shakedowns" — extortion of sexual favors in exchange for not ticketing or arresting someone

• Forcible or coercive sexual conduct, including rape

Others have included within the definition of police sexual misconduct the following:

• Pressuring individuals to provide their phone number or other contact information in order to contact them for non-law enforcement purposes

• Inappropriate or sexual comments made to passersby, during traffic or street stops, in the context of searches, including strip searches, or while an individual is in police custody

• Inappropriate questions or conversation about individuals' sexual orientation

Researchers emphasize the importance of viewing police sexual violence as a continuum in order to counter "the tendency to view the more extreme forms of sexual violence as aberrations, which severs them from their common structural and cultural bases." It is important to include sexual harassment on this continuum, because police officers have "the state-sanctioned power to detain, arrest and use physical force . . . [and] can invoke operational necessity, sometimes with institutional support, to engage in a range of potentially abusive behaviors, most significantly the legitimate use of violence." And police sexual harassment can be a precursor to more serious forms of violence.

Researchers also emphasize that police sexual violence is a structural issue, facilitated by the nature of police work. Much like other professions in which sexual misconduct is particularly prevalent, officers work alone or in pairs, often late at night or in private locations, "often in situations with little or no direct accountability," with considerable access to women and young people. A review of the Eugene, Oregon, police department conducted in the wake of the Magaña case concluded that lack of direct supervision was a "major problem." According to Penny Harrington, "There is this culture in law enforcement . . . you don't tell on your buddies. ... You get so bought into this police culture . . . you don't see anything wrong with it. It's like as a badge of honor, how many women in the community you can have sex with, and the younger the better."

Using media reports, arrest records, and civil and criminal court opinions, researchers have pulled together a more detailed picture of how police sexual violence happens, and to whom. The targets of reported police sexual violence are overwhelmingly women, and typically women of color who are or are perceived to be involved in the drug or sex trades, or using drugs or alcohol, as well as people with prior arrest records, immigrants, people with limited English proficiency, people with disabilities, and people who have previously been targeted for police sexual violence. Some researchers theorize that women who are targeted for police sexual violence are considered "police property" and therefore fair game for sexual extortion or assault. Additionally, young women are particularly at risk: in a 2003 study of young women in New York City, almost two in five young women described sexual harassment by police officers. Thirty-eight percent were Black, 39 percent Latinx, and 13 percent Asian or Pacifi c Islander. As one young Black woman put it, "They say they are protecting us, but they only make us feel more at risk."

Excerpted from Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color by Andrea J. Ritchie (Beacon Press, 2017). Reprinted with Permission from Beacon Press.