'Invisible No More' Examines Police Violence Against Minority Women

Nov 5, 2017

The names of black men and boys such as Eric Garner, Philando Castile and Tamir Rice, are often rallying cries during protests over alleged police misconduct. All three died during encounters with police and news about their deaths was a constant on social media.

For years, Andrea J. Ritchie, a police misconduct attorney, has worked to also bring attention to the names and experiences of black women such as Sandra Bland in Texas and Rekia Boyd in Chicago, who both died after violent encounters with police.

Ritchie's latest effort is a meticulously researched and often chilling book, Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color. In it she examines violent encounters between police and citizens from the perspective of black women, women of color, transgender women and others.


Interview Highlights

On whether news about volatile situations between police and women of color are increasingly becoming part of the mainstream conversation or if the book demands it should be

It's both and it's also that the resistance to police violence against black women and women of color should also be invisible no more. Post Ferguson (Michael Brown's death), young black women and women of color who were on the front lines were saying we will no longer be standing in front of tanks in Ferguson defending, asserting and refusing violence against Black men by police officers and having folks ignore the violence that we experience at the hands of police officers. So it's also to assert that looking at issues of racial profiling, policing and mass incarceration through the lens of women's experiences is a valid and essential standpoint. That's if we are to fully understand the scope and complexity and depth of the problem and therefore come up with solutions that are genuinely going to address the scourge of police and state violence against black bodies and brown bodies and immigrant bodies and people of color in this country.

On how the experiences of violent police encounters for women of color differ from the experiences of men

Some things are very similar — like police shootings and police profiling. You know, driving or walking while black and some things are disproportionately experienced by black women and women of color. An example of that would be police sexual violence which is the second most frequently reported form of police misconduct but not the second most talked about. That's even though case after case keeps coming to light. So for instance, I can think of five recent cases that have come to light of different kinds of police violence. That includes straight up rape of a young woman 18 years old in handcuffs in the back of a police cruiser after a traffic stop by a New York City police officer...

The Buffalo News did an investigation that showed a police officer is caught in an act of sexual misconduct every five days. It's already an invisible issue and certainly more invisible when sexual assault and sexual harassment is perpetrated by people who are the ones society has decided are the ones who should protect us.

On what police departments are doing about police sexual violence

The vast majority of them absolutely nothing. Thirty-eight of the 50 largest police departments responded to a survey I created two years ago. Among the 38 only half had a policy saying that you can't sexually assault a member of the public. And very few departments have a program designed to detect that kind of behavior, prevent that kind of behavior, to make it clear that complaints about that kind of behavior can be taken by a civilian oversight authority. In the vast majority of departments the only place to report police sexual violence is to the police and that creates its own series of opportunities of further violence and threats.

I do feel people look at the Daniel Holtzclaw case (the former Oklahoma City police officer convicted of preying on women while on patrol) , look at the fact he was prosecuted and convicted and that he's doing 263 years in prison and think, 'Oh the criminal legal system is handling this. We've got this. It's just on survivors to come forward and it will be properly investigated and officers will be prosecuted and that's how we are going to handle this problem — on a one-to-one case-by-case basis.' But the reality is that most people don't come forward and most officers are not prosecuted. Those who are, often face charges of official misconduct. Often they are acquitted because survivors are not believed. And in many other cases, officers are permitted to stay on the job, do an administrative desk job or move to another department. It's so prevalent that researchers have a term for it: the officer shuffle. An officer might be quietly terminated from one department for engaging in sexual misconduct and immediately be hired by the next department over without any warning to folks or any consequences and then continue their pattern of predation.

On why she believes the mainstream, anti-violence movement was often silent about police violence that affected black women and women of color

Because they are deeply invested in police as a solution to violence. So it makes it very difficult if you are advancing that there should be more policing and more criminalization as a response to violence to then confront the reality that police are primary perpetrators of violence. So it calls into question, the whole strategy in a way that I think is uncomfortable for what has now become an industry — that gets a significant amount of money from law enforcement, that partners with law enforcement and is invested in law enforcement as the answer to violence. It's changing though. I made a submission to the Task Force on 21st Century Policing under President Obama calling for the Department of Justice to take action on this issue, to issue a model policy to condition funding for departments — at least saying don't sexually harass or assault members of the public and certainly putting into a place a program to prevent, detect and hold officers accountable. Dozens of anti-violence organizations and coalitions signed onto that letter and are starting to take up the cause.

On whether social media play less of a role documenting alleged police misconduct when women are involved

Definitely. There are definitely cases that have been captured on video involving women that have helped raised visibility and expand the conversation to reflect their experiences, but you're right. If police violence against black women and women of color is happening in the back seats of patrol cars, on the way to the precinct, in the precinct in the context of domestic violence, in the context of responses to mental health crises — all those things are happening in private spaces away from cell phones and cop-watching cameras. Also when officers are responding to domestic violence, they're supposed to turn off their body cameras for the privacy of the survivors and I would support that except that then there's no documentation of the kinds of abuse that happens in those contexts. That is definitely one significant reason for invisibility of police violence against black women and women of color because it's happening in private spaces — in clinics, in homes, in welfare offices, in the back seats of patrol cars, in vacant lots, in precincts — and we are not seeing it in the same ways of the kind of public stop and frisk or the public excessive force or the public shootings that we see more often for black and brown men.

Let me say one more thing about excessive force policies that affect women. There's a number of instances of police excessive force used against pregnant women documented in the book and many police departments don't have a policy explicitly instructing police officers that they should not engage in certain kinds of uses of force against pregnant women — whether it's using a taser on pregnant women, whether it's using a kick or a punch on a pregnant woman's stomach, or taking a pregnant woman face down or rear handcuffing. There's a whole series of things that departments could do that would be specifically about use of force against pregnant women that departments don't do...and again, those policies aren't worth the paper they are written on if they aren't effectively enforced, but if you don't even have a policy then you certainly can't be effectively enforcing them.

On the difficulty of reading the book and whether the focus should be on weeding out bad officers that may work in one of the country's 18,000 police departments or whether it's necessary to have system-wide overhauls

I invite people to read the book for the answer to that question. I think that part of the reason it is so hard to read is because there are so many stories in it. And I struggled with how many to include but the reason I did that was to say, 'really, there are 300 cases here. Are we talking about an individual problem, a one-off problem, a rogue officer problem or are we starting to see a systemic pattern here?'

There's also a great deal of history to point out that this is not a recent phenomenon. That sexual violence by police and law enforcement and occupying colonial armies has been a constant threat throughout U.S. history , has consistently been part of the arsenal of oppression and policing and repression against communities of color. The answer is no, there's no question that it's a systemic problem.

On whether including details about resistance efforts helps emphasize that some are paying close attention to violent encounters that occur between police and women of color

Of course. Individual women and girls that this is happening to are speaking out and demanding justice. Their families and communities are speaking out and demanding justice. Of course it was important to reflect that. I think this is a historical necessity. We talk about slavery sometimes as if black folks were just submissively accepting and enduring what happened, but that was certainly not the case and people were resisting in all kinds of ways. And I really appreciate many of the black feminist historians who I quote who talk about how black women resisted in all kinds of ways on a daily basis the violence of slavery. So I wanted similarly reflect the ways in which people are resisting in all kinds of ways the daily police violence that black women and women of color are subjected to and I wanted to illustrate how looking at this issue through the lens of women's experiences might shift the ways in which we resist, might expand the demands that we make. For instance, if we are going to make a demand about excessive force policy, we are going to make sure that it addresses excessive force against pregnant people. If we're going to make a demand about anything else, we're going to do that in a way that reflects multiple experiences of a particular problem. That we are going to evaluate our responses also through the lens of, 'is this actually going to reduce police violence against black women and women of color or is just going to shift the form that it takes?'

On hoping the book helps change the conversation about police and violence

There's no question about it. And we want to think about how it changes the conversation, how it changes the solutions that we pursue, the demands that we make and how it changes the vision of what systems and what institutions we need to put in place that will actually produce more safety for black women and women of color.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.