Handling Sexual Misconduct by Public Safety Officers is a Job for Us,
Not the Courts
by Lou Reiter
Includes Sample Policy at bottom of article.
Those of us in the public safety profession,
whether it’s law enforcement or fire, have to accept
the fact that members of our profession are abusing their
power and oaths of office when they engage in acts of sexual
impropriety. The courts appear to be reluctant to hold supervisors
and agencies accountable for these acts of misconduct and
official abuse of power. And, unfortunately, many police
and fire supervisors aren’t stepping forward and doing
the right thing either.
You have probably heard others say
it’s just boys
being boys. Or, maybe, it was consensual. She was flirtatious
or trying to get out of a ticket. She was just another groupie.
And you may feel safe with the thought that anything that
occurred happened after the officer was off-duty. Others
may say that if she isn’t willing to cooperate with
us there is nothing we should do. Some may still have the
incorrect belief that it’s all about credibility
and we should give the officer greater weight than the
These are archaic thoughts and will get you and your agency
into a heap of trouble.
Police and fire sexual misconduct
is occurring throughout the country. Eugene, OR. just
settled a lawsuit involving
numerous women who alleged they had been abused by officers.
Pennsylvania State Police are being scrutinized for troopers
working up dates during traffic stops. Two officers in
separate departments in Portland, OR, have pled guilty to
criminal charges for ordering females to expose their
undergarments under the guise of looking for a suspect with
In Louisiana, a deputy was allowing traffic violators
to go if they would promise to pose nude for him at a later
time and had them expose their breasts so he could photograph
them as leverage for their follow through. A State Trooper
in the Nashville area was photographing couples engaged
in sexual acts in vehicles and had thousands of photographs
in his file. Several fire departments, including New York,
have been rocked by scandals that firefighters engaged
in sex in the station houses.
The victims of these abuses
of authority often are vulnerable women - street prostitutes,
drug addicts, juvenile runaways,
drunk drivers, victims of domestic violence, and traffic
violators. In nearly all of the reported cases the officers
and firefighters are male. In most cases, particularly
with police officers, they are on duty either when the sexual
impropriety occurs or when the initial contact is made.
They are using their official positions to exercise their
authority to demand, entice, coerce, and force themselves
upon these victims. It is not always for what most people
would term sexual gratification. Sometimes it’s
just domination and control and holding these women hostage
an official stop for a long period of time.
are going to jail for these offenses and for significant
periods of time in both state and Federal
prisons. But criminal prosecution is difficult. Prosecutors
are reluctant to bring these cases to trial considering
that most of the victims will be perceived to have credibility
issues. Often the officer is a family man, has a stellar
professional reputation, and is an active member of his
church and local community.
In the civil arena, the courts
have been reluctant to hold supervisors and agencies accountable
for these acts of misconduct.
The courts seem to want direct knowledge on the part of
the supervisor and would set the threshold for liability
as “deliberate indifference.” i In other cases
courts have accepted minimal agency response by supervisors
as being sufficient to avoid any liability. ii If an agency
does something, it seems to satisfy the courts.
that courts require very specific knowledge by supervisors
to hold them liable in these sexual misconduct
cases. In a Texas case iii the Plaintiff alleged an on-duty
sexual assault for which the officer was subsequently
arrested and terminated. She alleged prior acts of misconduct,
these documented instances were for use of force. The
court dismissed her supervisory claim.
In Pennsylvania, iv
the Court denied motions to dismiss against several State
Police supervisors for their personal knowledge
of sexual misconduct of a trooper convicted of numerous
on-duty acts. The Court noted that the Third Circuit “has
enunciated the following test in this context: [A] plaintiff
asserting a failure to supervise claim must not only identify
a specific supervisory practice that the defendant has failed
to employ, he or she must also allege both (1) contemporaneous
knowledge of the offending incident or knowledge of a prior
pattern of similar incidents, and (2) circumstances under
which the supervisor's inaction could be found to have communicated
a message of approval…The Third Circuit has held that
this standard requires "actual knowledge and acquiescence," which "can
be inferred from circumstances other than actual sight…actually
knew rather than to what a reasonable official in his or
her position should have known." The Court acknowledged
that it had to determine that each of the defendants was
on notice and their actions amounted to deliberate indifference.
Several of the supervisors were kept in this case because
they failed to initiate the process for an administrative
When a police or fire sexual scandal occurs
in a community, it has far reaching implications regardless
of any criminal
or civil outcomes. It often results in the termination
of the Chief of Police or Fire Chief. In the small community
of Wakill, NY, a department of about 25 employees, sexual
improprieties played a significant part in the eventual
consent decree imposed by the State Attorney General.
What we don’t know is whether there are common precursors
to officers who may be committing these types of misconduct.
But, in most of these departments, the misconduct did not
come as a surprise to many in the agency. Most officers
in a department know the “skirt chasers” or
the ones who like to stalk areas where couples like to park.
What is often missing is supervisory interest and intervention.
Waiting for a complaint to come in isn’t enough
and may not occur until something more disastrous happens.
nearly every department has sufficient written policy
to prohibit these forms of sexual impropriety, few have
a written policy specifically addressing police sexual misconduct.
In a 2003 reported study involving 40 officers in 14 St.
Louis area police agencies, the researcher found that none
of the involved agencies had such a written policy. This
study also found that the incidence of police sexual misconduct “was
common,” but that the occurrences of violent types
of sexual misconduct such as rapes were minimal.v The Legal
and Liability Risk Management Institute has a policy that
it recommends to agencies for whom it provides professional
It is apparent that the cultural
change has to begin in the basic academy. Neil Trautman,
Ethics, from February 1999 to June 2000 surveyed 1016
recruits in 25 basic academies in 16 states and found
that 46 percent indicated they wouldn’t report another
officer who was having sex while on duty. We may be
discussing this issue in the generic sense, rather than
of jail time and department humiliation and turmoil.
need to be alert to officers who may be abusing their
authority and search out indicators of the problem.
In the tragic homicide of Kara Knott by California Highway
Patrolman Greg Peyer in the 1980s, the subsequent investigations
disclosed that there were over 40 females who had alerted
the CHP to “strange” practices of Officer
Peyer in pulling women over, directing them to a darkened
off the freeway, and keeping them there for prolonged
periods of time. None of these complaints were reasonably
It was later learned that he had his citations already
partially filled out. He was targeting young women, preferably
driving compact cars.
A supervisor can audit the citations
and stops of officers to determine the ratio of females
versus males. For those
officers with reputations as a “skirt chaser” the
supervisor under the guise of a quality control audit can
conduct personal, random call-backs to females stopped by
the officer. These same techniques can and should be used
when a complaint of sexual misconduct comes into the station,
rather than simply stay within the four corners of that
one complaint. In some cases it might be warranted to develop
a “sting” operation to determine the actions
of the suspected, targeted officer. Some departments have
orchestrated a recorded telephone contact using the complainant
and the accused officer, if the circumstances warranted.
It’s also important to know what other officers were
aware of and whether they failed to take appropriate action.
Cases in departments have discovered that officers were
taking sexual oriented photographs of females and, in some
cases, themselves and then displaying them in the station
to other officers.
An agency can’t simply wait for the outcome of a
criminal investigation. Usually these are conducted by a
state level unit, another police agency, or the prosecutor’s
office. They are zeroing in on the criminal conduct and
usually restricting it to the conduct involving only the
victim who has come forward. The administrative investigation
can move beyond the four corners of the specific complaint
and look at possible collateral misconduct by other officers
and supervisory failures. The agency can look for misuse
of the computerized data systems and unexplained callbacks
to female victims of crimes.
Every police agency should promulgate a written policy
specifically prohibiting all forms of police sexual misconduct,
Basic, in-service and supervisory training should use
case studies and on-going incidents in other communities
to intensify the significance of this police and fire
problem and demonstrate the potential for individual and
liability for failing to take appropriate action when
becoming aware of sexual impropriety,
Every police agency should require regular audit and
inspection techniques designed for validation of whether
or not sexual misconduct may be occurring, and
Administrative investigations regarding allegations
of sexual misconduct should be expanded beyond the four
of the complainant’s allegation and evaluate possible
indicators of agency issues, supervisory responses,
and collateral misconduct.
Maslow, et al., v. Evans, et al., 2003 U.S. Dist. LEXIS
20316 and Doe v. City of Hartford, 2004 U.S. Dist. LEXIS
Clancy v. McCabe, 441 Mass. 311; 805 N.E. 2d 484; 2004
Mass. LEXIS 147; Oliver v. City of Berkeley, 261 F. Supp.
2d 870; 2003 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 7889; and Beal
v. Blanche, 2005 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 2151
Lewis v. Pugh, et al., 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 34754
Maslow, et al., v. Evans, et al., 2003 U.S. Dist. LEXIS
“Police Sexual Misconduct: Officers Perceptions of its Extent and Causality,” Timothy
Maher, Criminal Justice Review, Volume 28, Number 2, Autumn 2003, Georgia
See Appendix I below:
Appendix I - sample policy
Law enforcement officers are empowered with authority by
their government to protect the public from criminal
activity. When an officer abuses this authority for sexual
purposes, and violates another person, the officer not only
commits a crime against the victim, but damages the credibility
and trust of the entire law enforcement community with the
public. The purpose of this policy is caution all officers
that any violation of the public trust involving sexual
misconduct will result in severe consequences including
prosecution to the fullest extent possible.
II. Policy: It is the policy of this Department to train
all of their officers concerning the potential for criminal
sexual misconduct within law enforcement, how to recognize
it, and the requirements for reporting any violation to
the appropriate authorities.
Criminal Sexual Misconduct: The abuse of authority
by a law enforcement officer for sexual purposes that
Sexual Misconduct: Any sexual activity while on-duty
or stemming from official duty. Sexual misconduct
includes but is not limited to use of official position
resources to obtain information for purposes of
pursuing sexual conduct.
Intimate Part: Genital area, inner thigh, groin,
buttocks or breasts of a person.
Actor: The person accused of sexual assault
Sexual Contact: Any contact for the purpose of
sexual gratification of the actor with the
of a person not married to the actor.
Sexual activity of any nature while on duty is prohibited.
Sexual Misconduct is prohibited and shall be disciplined
up to and including termination.
Any contact for the purpose of sexual gratification
of the actor with the intimate parts of a person
while on duty
A police officer shall not engage in sexual contact
with another person who is in the custody of law
and such officer
has supervisory or disciplinary authority over
such other person.
Training: All sworn officers of this department
including supervisors will receive specific training
elements of sexual misconduct involving law enforcement
The training will also include all elements of
Reporting Requirements: Any employee of this
Department, who is made aware of any violation
of this policy,
is required to report the violation to their supervisor.
will immediately contact the Internal Affairs
Section, or the command level personnel having
who will immediately initiate an investigation
with their established investigative policy. The
investigation will involve other investigative
elements of the Department
as necessary and any forensic evidence will be
protected and processed immediately. The accused
will not attempt to resolve a complaint of this
nature with the complainant, and is required to
make immediate contact
with Internal Affairs or the command level personnel
having Internal Affairs responsibility.
Any officer found to be in violation of the provisions
of this policy shall be disciplined up to and
including termination and criminal charges where established.
Any employee having knowledge of a violation
of this policy, who fails to report said
be disciplined up to and including dismissal,
and criminal charges if appropriate.
If the violation involves supervisory personnel,
the reporting officer will notify the
appropriate command level officer and will not be strictly
held to his or