Police Sexual Assault Exemplifies Abuse of Power Over Those at The Margins

Lowell, MA

The Center for Hope and Healing, Inc. on 21 George Street in Lowell, MA

The recent rape allegations against a Lowell Police Officer expose a much deeper public safety and public health problem.  Not only are these charges a reminder that sexual assault, abuse, and rape are about power and control – not sex; Additionally, this is a clear demonstration of how people living at the margins of our society are most vulnerable to this and other types of abuse and violence.

Lowell police officer, Kevin Garneau, was charged on allegations of repeatedly raping a 16-year-old homeless girl while he was working in a community outreach program three years ago, prosecutors said. He was arraigned on two counts of rape in Middlesex Superior Court following a department investigation that began earlier this year, Middlesex County District Attorney Marian Ryan’s office said in a statement. He was released on personal recognizance and ordered to wear a GPS monitoring device and to stay away from the victim. 

While we appreciate the swift response by law enforcement, our community actions and reactions simply cannot stop there. When police commit abuse and assault, it is a heinous example of those with the most power preying on those with the least. Rape, sexual assault, and abuse disproportionately impact those at the margins of our society: children and youth, LGBQ and particularly Transgender people, those living with addictions, disabilities, and other vulnerabilities.  

Perpetrators of rape and sexual violence crimes choose vulnerable victims precisely because they are vulnerable, likely to not be believed and even more likely not to report the crime at all.  A 16-year-old girl, struggling with addiction, homeless, and having to live in a tent is such an individual.

Rape and sexual assault by law enforcement is prevalent across the country as evident by data readily available in The Henry A. Wallace Police Crime Database. It currently includes summary data on 10,000+ police criminal arrest cases from the years 2005-2014. The topline numbers indicate about 1,000 officer arrests per year over the eight years of the data set. Under the most commonly charged offense across all police arrest incidents in the database was misdemeanor assault, with forcible fondling and forcible rape making the list of the top 10 charges.

One of the most notorious criminal cases in recent years involved Oklahoma City Officer Daniel Holtzclaw. He was accused of sexually assaulting 13 African-American women during routine traffic stops. Most of these women had previous drug or prostitution convictions. The prosecutor alleged Holtzclaw targeted these women because they were poor, black, and that no one would believe them if they came forward. He was convicted on 18 of 36 counts, including four counts of first-degree rape, and sentenced to 236 years in prison. While Holtzclaw was ultimately brought to justice, he banked on the knowledge that he could repeat his behavior multiple times before the first woman came forward to accuse him by targeting vulnerable and marginalized women.

Unfortunately, these are not uncommon stories to us at The Center for Hope and Healing, Inc. located in Lowell MA. We provide services to survivors of sexual violence and strive to place their lives and voices at the center, particularly the voices of those who are most silenced. Our vision is a world free from sexual violence—And we begin by believing survivors. And holding offenders accountable. Period.

Police Departments must enact policies and practices that promote positive behavior and hold offenders accountable. The International Association of Chiefs of Police stated in 2011 that general ethics policies are inadequate because they do not specifically address situations in which police take advantage of their position and authority to commit sex crimes, initiate sexual contact, or respond inappropriately to perceived sexually motivated cues. We are ready to work with police departments in our area to craft more meaningful policies to close this gap.

We also believe that Police Departments and all they stand for must be the model of prevention and intervention. This takes intention and a deepened understanding of the issues surrounding violence, race, gender, and vulnerable communities.

We invite you to join our effort to end sexual violence in Lowell and beyond. Visit us at www.chhinc.org to learn more and at our social media handle @chhlowell

Isa Woldeguiorguis, Executive Director
The Center for Hope and Healing, Inc.
21 George Street, Suite 400
Lowell, MA 01852
978-452-7721 ext. 109
[email protected]