In a shocking new investigation, the Guardian reveals how one California county sought to cover up systemic sexual abuse in its police force by paying off victims, taking advantage of their trauma and lack of legal knowledge to get them to sign away the county’s liability. Amid heightened conversations around both police brutality and sexual assault, these revelations are a sobering reminder of the persistence of gender-based violence perpetrated by people in positions of power.
The piece centers on the story of Karen Frye, a 51-year-old woman in Bakersfield, California, who was charged with committing a hit-and-run in 2009. In jail, she got treatment for uterine and gall-bladder cancer. “Despite being prescribed a course of powerful painkillers, she was left in excruciating pain,” authors Oliver Laughland and Jon Swaine write. “It was at this time, at her most vulnerable, she said that deputy [Anthony] Lavis preyed on her: He watched her shower, he bullied and humiliated her, and he sexually assaulted her multiple times.”
Frye told the sheriff’s office that Lavis, one of her jailers, was abusing her, and officers helped her staged a sting operation to catch him with a camera hidden in a Bible in her cell. When Lavis entered Frye’s room and began to assault her, the officers didn’t get there in time to stop him. The next day, they showed her $1,500 in cash and told her to sign documents releasing the sheriff’s office of liability. She was still taking heavy pain medication for her cancer; she says she signed the papers thinking the cash was a reward for helping catch Lavis in the sting. The cash went right into Frye’s jail bank account. She spent the next two months in solitary confinement, which she believes was a ploy to keep her from speaking out.
A recent AP investigation found that about 1,000 police officers from around the country had their badges revoked between 2009 and 2014 for sexual misconduct. This count is still a significantly low estimate, since it does not include officers from the sizable police forces of California and New York; those states don’t have statewide systems that keep track of decertified officers. And some states reported no officers fired for sexual misconduct, though court records showed otherwise. This new Guardian piece, part of a broader investigation of brutality and killings perpetrated by the Kern County police force, highlights another reason why it’s hard to quantify the extent of America’s problem with sexual assault by law enforcement officials: County authorities have deep incentives—funding, job security, public trust—to cover up their employees’ misdoings.
Frye was comparatively lucky—her lawyers convinced a judge that the waiver she signed could not be enforced because she was undergoing medical treatment and was only one day removed from her sexual assault, rendering her incompetent to make such a legal decision. She ended up suing a slew of Kern County employees for sexual battery, fraud, conspiracy, and negligence, and got a settlement of $300,000. But four more of Lavis’ alleged victims were left with the small sums the county pushed on them to keep them quiet. One got $1,000. The other three were paid off with just $200 each—the lowball number the county put forth at the start of what could have been a negotiation.
Women weren’t the only victims of Kent County police abuse. In 2011, the Bakersfield police department settled in a class-action lawsuit filed by at least 44,000 former inmates at the Lerdo jail, who alleged that they were subjected to unnecessary, inappropriate strip searches and cavity searches, during which officers sometimes forced them to touch other inmates’ bodies.
Kern County’s problem extends far beyond the confines of its jail, too. In another case the Guardian details, two police officers entered a woman’s apartment to perform a probation spot check on her boyfriend. When they found the woman, identified as Jane Doe, sleeping, the officers handcuffed her. One, Gabriel Lopez, who’d been a patrol officer for just two weeks, patted her down and groped her under her shorts. The officers left, but Lopez returned alone a few minutes later, claimed he needed to perform a cavity search on 21-year-old Doe, and continued his assault. After Doe reported the assault, two senior Kern County sheriff’s office representatives came to her house to negotiate a settlement. Their initial offer was $1,000, which they eventually ramped up to $7,500, but Doe refused to settle.
Lopez was eventually sentenced to two years for that assault and a similar case, wherein he molested an 18-year-old woman during a strip search after she called the police to her house over a domestic disturbance, just a day after Lopez’s Doe assault. That victim signed away her right to sue when the county offered her $5,000. Lopez also allegedly assaulted a 79-year-old woman who reported a domestic dispute with her husband.
Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood maintains that the department subjects deputies on staff to a rigorous psychological exam and a polygraph test about their sexual behavior. But a man who molests two women just two weeks after he becomes a patrol officer probably exhibited some warning signs before taking his oath. Perhaps Kern County’s psychological experts need to re-evaluate what those warning signs might be.
Relying on self-reported behavioral data is not enough—every police department should instate comprehensive training on preventing, reporting, and prosecuting sexual assault within its own ranks. Kern County is far from the only U.S. jurisdiction with a sexual abuse problem; sexual assault rates among police officers are significantly higher than among the general population, even though a survivor is less likely to report a police officer’s assault because he’s in a position of power and she may be committing a crime. It’s worth asking whether there’s something about the job, something about recruitment techniques, training, or lack of accountability that attracts and enables people who’d use their authority to victimize those they’re dispatched to protect. There should be swift Justice Department penalties against jurisdictions that underreport or cover up the criminal behavior of their officers, and rewards for departments that take quick and decisive public action against abusers in their midst.
Just as critically, our discussions around police brutality need to include the particular kinds of violence perpetrated against women of color, which are often sexualized. Women of color represent a disproportionate number of the rapidly rising population of incarcerated women in America, as well as a disproportionate number of survivors of police rape. The culture of U.S. law enforcement is rapidly eroding the public’s trust in the people we’ve hired to keep us safe. A crisis of confidence is itself a threat to public safety, and it’ll take more than a psychological evaluation and an under-the-table payment to forestall one.