As I have said before (a number of times) in this series, a principle component of fascist policing is an environment where police misconduct routinely goes unpunished. This is not to say that such misconduct never goes unpunished, but that even egregious misconduct is not guaranteed to be punished when brought to light.
Harris County, Texas gives us yet another example of cops going unpunished despite egregious behavior. The fascist cops in this case are Ronaldine Pierre and William Strong. Yet I want to question the extent to which a fascist policing mentality is exclusively to blame.
All the trigger warnings, should you choose to continue.
Many in Harris County have been in a right state for two years now, waiting to see what would happen in response to the public rape of Charneisha Corley, a Black woman college student, by police officers who claimed to be using that rape in search for drugs. Almost two weeks ago, on August 4th, criminal cases against two Sheriff’s deputies were set to begin. Instead, they were dropped and
Those deputies will not now be tried. Instead, the “new evidence” is apparently related to the prosecutors’ attempt to reopen charges against the victim of this state-sponsored rape.
The UK’s Independent reports that
Harris County prosecutor Natasha Sinclair spoke out against the officers involved. “No one in this office stands by the search the way it was conducted. No one condones that,” Ms Sinclair said. “No one thinks it’s appropriate. It should not have happened.”
But she added that the deputies may not necessarily be punished for their actions, saying: “Bad decisions, bad judgement, may not rise to the level of criminal offence.”
First, Sinclair is a liar. We know that many “condone” the conduct to which Corley was subjected because
- Ronaldine Pierre actually committed the conduct, was charged with Official Oppression, and presumably condones her own actions.
- William Strong supervised Ronaldine Pierre and engaged in conduct sufficiently serious to be criminally charged with Official Oppression before the last-minute actions of the District Attorney’s office. That officer, presumably, condones the actions that he supervised,
- An officer that might or might not be William Strong was captured on dash cam saying that they were going to get evidence of criminal conduct by Corley even if they had to “lay hands on her”. They found no such evidence,
- Including Ronaldine Pierre and William Strong, it appears that at least one other deputy or officer was present for some or all of the conduct. (I’ve tried hard to exactly quantify this, but am still not sure of the total number of officers at the scene, since some may have been off-camera and those on camera are not always visually identifiable to me given the lighting.) The deputy/ies present who did not physically assault Corley certainly witnessed the conduct without trying to halt it and without even so much as a complaint that I’ve noticed.
- The officers performed all these actions and inactions in full view of a dash cam recording audio and video. They manifestly had no fear that such actions would reflect badly on them if and when that video was turned over to superiors (as happens automatically at end-of-shift, though this technical transfer does not always mean that footage is viewed by superiors) or to prosecutors (as they would have been required to do if they wished to actually prosecute Corley or anyone else arrested from the same vehicle at the same time).
- Not only did the one witness (possibly including one deputy engaged in sexualized threats) not face any criminal charges for their official misconduct, not a single person seems to have been significantly punished. The supervising deputy is on patrol status right now. The deputy that actually forced her way inside the body of another person without even a warrant authorizing her to do so (and we know that these are not necessarily legitimate merely because they have been issued) is still working for the same Harris County Sheriff’s Office and as far as I can tell has suffered no demotions. She is not working on patrol at the moment, but her assignment to non-patrol duties is not a punishment unless the HCSO wishes to affirm to the public that no one is assigned to non-patrol duties except as a consequence for misconduct. That would be interesting news for the parents of Harris County to learn about their children’s school resource officers.
- And, finally, the Houston Chronicle reports:
The deputies – Ronaldine Pierre and William Strong – have adamantly denied any wrongdoing and were cleared by an internal investigation.
Despite all the trigger warnings, I’ve not as yet described the actual conduct. This is not merely because it is horrifying, but because sexualized assaults are routinely excused whether or not they are carried out by law enforcement. In particular, I’d like us to remember the Steubenville assaults here. Dana Hunter wrote frequently about the Steubenville case, including this piece about the conviction and the judge’s statements in sentencing the convicted rapists. Dana helpfully includes a broad swath of links to FtB writers who were covering Steubenville at the same time*1.
The Steubenville case, like the case here, involved witnesses who took no action to prevent the assault. The victim in the Steubenville case was chemically impaired to the point that it was obviously impossible for her to consent. Some people joked in recordings (that later found their way into the media) about the assault by actually using the word rape. Yet despite people loudly and laughingly talking about rape, no one felt the need to report the conduct to the police as a possible assault:
One of the three [on trial for the assault and for child pornography for photos and videos distributed – CD], when asked why he did not try to stop what was happening, testified that he did not realize it was rape. “It wasn’t violent,” he said. “I didn’t know exactly what rape was.”
When people achieve power over someone without obvious violence, or when violence ceases after power over someone is achieved, it seems it is almost trivially easy for bystanders to believe that rape and other sexualized assaults cannot happen. A popular conception of rape is that it must involve force or threat of force at the time of the rape. Despite being in conflict with more accurate definitions of rape or sexual assault that focus on sexualized contact without consent, this seems to be the definition that we report to each other is believed by the majority of people in English-speaking cultures. This is the myth that we tell ourselves we must oppose. Yet even this is far too generous to the level of understanding among people at large. Rather than being accomplished on condition of force or threat of force, people like the youth on trial in Ohio appear to believe that the sexualized thrusts, the actions of penetration or grabbing, the forced contact must be violent in itself. If a rapist isn’t thrusting away hard enough to leave bruises, it is all too easy even for people watching the assault to tell themselves that this isn’t rape.
Now, part of this is the conflation of rape and sex. Holding a metaphorical gun to someone’s head or otherwise subjecting someone to threats or violence before engaging in even penile penetration of that person’s vagina*2 is not rape, because the rape is the penetration. The penetration is not considered rape if the penetration isn’t causing tissue damage, because the penetration is not the violence.
Here officials seem to resist the idea that a legal sexual assault has occurred because when Corley was raped, Ronaldine Pierre was not moving violently and may not (as far as I know) have caused tissue damage on her own merely by her penetration of Corley.
Despite this, the violation of Corley was anything but mild, neutral, or even procedurally sound. According to the Chronicle:
In June 2015, Corley was pulled over by Harris County deputies in northwest Houston for running a stop sign. In her lawsuit, Corley said that after interviewing her, the deputies claimed to smell marijuana but found nothing in a search of her car.
Then, female officers told Corley to remove her pants and shone a flashlight onto her exposed genital area to conduct a “visual strip search,” according to her lawsuit.
The deputies decided to do a manual body-cavity search while still in the parking lot, according to the complaint.
When Corley protested, “the deputies forcibly threw Ms. Corley to the ground, while she was still handcuffed, pinned her down with her legs spread apart, threatened to break her legs, and without consent penetrated her vagina in a purported search for marijuana,” according to the suit.
The video – which lasts approximately two hours – shows the largely polite encounter between Corley and the deputy. The view of the search is blocked by car doors, but Corley can be seen being placed on the ground without her pants, and with her legs pinioned an awkward position for more than 10 minutes while the female deputy shined a flashlight in the area.
Note that there was no search warrant, and the most horrifying part of this to some readers might be entirely missed or dramatically minimized by others:
while still in the parking lot
It’s not entirely clear why, but my best guess is that the deputies involved knew they had no evidence on which to arrest her and thus were faced with a choice of letting her go (if no more evidence was required) or arresting her before a search was conducted (which would make the arrest illegal). The compromise path taken by the deputies, although also illegal, seems to be chosen to navigate between these two choices deemed unacceptable to the deputies.
I say that this is illegal because there have been court cases in the past that have challenged law enforcement’s assertions of a right to perform strip searches in public. Oddly, an important case establishing limits on strip searches was not a case against law enforcement, but against a school district for the brief strip search of an 8th grade student suspected of having Tylenol or similar headache medicine in violation of a policy that forbids students to be in possession of medications (prescriptions or over the counter) and instead has the parents of students who might need such medications to leave them in the control of the school district. That case, Stafford Unified School District #1 v Redding, was incorrectly identified (as “Safford”) but otherwise cited correctly by the US DOJ in this otherwise accurate and on-point dissection of illegal and unconstitutional strip searches conducted routinely by the Baltimore Police Department:
Strip searches are “fairly understood” as “degrading” and, under the Fourth Amendment, are reasonable only in narrow circumstances. Safford Unified Sch. Dist. #1 v. Redding, 557 U.S. 364, 375 (2009). Strip searches are never permissible as part of a pre-arrest weapons frisk. See Holmes, 376 F.3d at 275 (weapons frisks must be limited to the outer layers of a suspect’s clothing). Following a lawful arrest, the reasonableness of a strip search turns on “the scope of the particular intrusion, the manner in which it is conducted, the justification for initiating it, and the place in which it is conducted.” Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520, 559 (1979). Absent specific facts indicating that an arrestee is concealing a weapon or contraband, officers may not strip search a person incident to arrest for an offense that is not “commonly associated by its very nature with the possession of weapons or contraband.” Logan v. Shealy, 660 F.2d 1007, 1013 (4th Cir. 1981). Moreover, courts have “repeatedly emphasized the necessity of conducting a strip search in private.” Amaechi v. West, 237 F.3d 356, 364 (4th Cir. 2001) (finding strip search unreasonable where it was conducted in public view). BPD policy likewise recognizes that strip searches should be conducted only “under very limited and controlled circumstances” and that “strip searching . . .  suspects in public view or on a public thoroughfare is forbidden.”
This section on strip searches is part of the larger DOJ report that can be found here and released almost exactly a year ago. Note that this is a discussion of strip searches, and body cavity searches of the type conducted illegally by Ronaldine Pierre and William Strong are subject to a whole ‘nother level of court scrutiny. But, of course, the BPD engaged in illegal body cavity searches as well:
[I]n September 2014, a man filed a complaint stating that an officer in the Central District searched him several days in a row, including “undoing his pants” and searching his “hindquarters” on a public street. When the strip search did not find contraband, the officer told the man to leave the area and warned that the officer would search him again every time he returned. The man then filed a complaint with Internal Affairs and identified the officer who conducted the strip search by name. When Internal Affairs investigators pressed the man to provide a detailed description of the officer, the man recalled that the officer “had red patches with sergeant stripes” on his uniform. The investigator recognized this description as patches worn by the officer in charge of a shift and confirmed that the officer named by the man was working as an officer in charge in the Central District on the dates the man alleged he was strip- searched. Internal Affairs nonetheless deemed the complaint “not sustained” without further explanation.
So we know that body cavity searches are used as punishment and to deter behavior that an officer deems undesirable even when that behavior is legal. We also know that despite facially valid evidence, officers’ superiors do not take these complaints seriously. This is consistent with what happened to Corley in Texas. And, cops being human beings placed in positions of power and encouraged to treat citizens as enemies, there was another incident that even more closely paralleled Corley’s experience. This was the only report referred to Internal Affairs at BPD they they sustained despite 60 credibly reports being made (often without any investigation or explanation, as above):
In one of these incidents— memorialized in a complaint that the Department sustained—officers in BPD’s Eastern District publicly strip-searched a woman following a routine traffic stop for a missing headlight. Officers ordered the woman to exit her vehicle, remove her clothes, and stand on the sidewalk to be searched. The woman asked the male officer in charge “I really gotta take all my clothes off?” The male officer replied “yeah” and ordered a female officer to strip search the woman. The female officer then put on purple latex gloves, pulled up the woman’s shirt and searched around her bra. Finding no weapons or contraband around the woman’s chest, the officer then pulled down the woman’s underwear and searched her anal cavity. This search again found no evidence of wrongdoing and the officers released the woman without charges. Indeed, the woman received only a repair order for her headlight. The search occurred in full view of the street, although the supervising male officer claimed he “turned away” and did not watch the woman disrobe.
How very decent of him.
So we have clear court precedents limiting strip searches prior to arrest. Though SCOTUS this year decided that strip searches can be conducted at any time inside a law enforcement detention facility while someone is there under arrest or pursuant to sentence for a conviction, three things are important to note:
1: that decision was made a year and a half after the stop in which Corley was vaginally penetrated by an officer, therefore the officers could not possibly know at the time that they might have such broad authority over persons in custodial detention, and
2: Corley was not under arrest, had not been convicted of anything in her life, and was assaulted publicly in the parking lot of a Texaco gas station & convenience store.
3: Penetration and body cavity searches have been consistently held to be unconstitutional if not performed in private under sanitary conditions. Corley was literally thrown down on the asphalt of an open business before her pants were forcibly pulled from her body against her will, which anyone can readily see is neither private nor sanitary.
So how is it that the prosecutor Natasha Sinclair could say that these were not unconstitutional actions that subject the deputies Ronaldine Pierre and William Strong to criminal prosecution?
The easy answer is that Fascist Police will Fascist. But I think that something much more complicated and potentially much worse is going on: Steubenville’s acceptance of the public rape of a person unable to resist is not anything near unique. Though the Steubenville rapists received exceptional publicity, the actions they performed are not nearly so newsworthy because rape in front of witnesses is happening in many places around the United States, and failing to stop it is rationalized elsewhere for many of the same reasons the Steubenville criminals and bystanders articulated.
From the record, the cops appear to be using the rape of Corley as some sort of coercion or punishment against a man who had been riding in the car with Corley and who was arrested that night. It was to that man that the threat was made that the deputies would find something even if they had to “lay hands on” Corley.
Recently there was some mention on FtB of a case in Pakistan where an informal court of elders sentenced a girl to be raped by a distant relative because her brother had been deemed to have raped a girl sister to the complainant. Punishing the possible rapist was not accomplished through restitution to the girl raped. Restorative justice was not demanded that would return a victim of rape to as much health and happiness as possible. No, the court of elders deemed that the interests of justice demanded the rape of another woman to punish a man suspected of wrongdoing.
We were very quick to condemn this decision and the elders who made it, and rightly so. But oh, how many glass walls were broken by the stones we have thrown. And in the end, higher and official Pakistani authorities have intervened after this horror to try and lay a foundation for real justice in the town. Can we expect so much from the federal government of the United States?
*1: Dana Hunter’s blog was then hosted by FtB, now by The Orbit.
*2: the most stereotypical and widely discussed form of rape