The Holtzclaw Conviction Is Not Progress
Dec. 17, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — One week ago, former Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw was told that he will spend the rest of his life in prison. Technically, the sentencing, where the convicted rapist faces up to 236 years, will not occur until January 21, but when the jury read the verdict convicting him of having committed eighteen criminal sexual acts against eight women, a life sentence became a foregone conclusion.
This case was a meeting of two intense areas of criminal justice. There was the fact that a police officer was investigated, charged, and convicted for his crimes. There was the fact that an all-white jury convicted a white male of raping multiple black women.
Some have lauded Holtzclaw’s conviction as a step forward for police accountability and racial justice. From Time,
The fact that the former Oklahoma City police officer was convicted of 18 counts of sexual assault against 13 black women isn’t just a victory for the victims. It could also represent progress toward a long overdue shift in the way our criminal justice system treats police officer offenders and rape victims, especially victims who are black.
Unfortunately, it does not.
Daniel Holtzclaw is conclusively evil in ways that many of us cannot even fathom. This is clear. But his conviction is no watershed moment. The totality of his case should be a sobering reminder to all of us about where we currently are in regard to proper justice, and a lesson about how far we have still to go.
As for what Holtzclaw’s conviction might mean to victims of rape and their ability to come forward and be believed, I will leave that topic to other writers. It is a subject that is often heavy on bogus statistics and light on productive solution. Suffice to say, there are very real struggles within a system that must accommodate the reporting of this very unique type of crime and one that must adhere to the presumption of innocence and the guarantee of due process for the accused.
But the other two areas that were touched by the Holtzclaw case provide much clearer lessons. Police accountability and racial justice are inextricably linked, sometimes seemingly in a death spiral.
Thirteen women came forward and testified at trial that Holtzclaw had sexually victimized them under disturbingly similar circumstances. It is impossible to know what the outcome would have been had that number been lower than thirteen? Salon’s Eesha Pandit made just that point.
How many victims need to come forward before we believe the women who have been assaulted by police officers?
Is 5 too few? Is 10 enough?
It took thirteen black women to convict Holtzclaw. That is all we know. Ten may have lacked the critical mass to obtain a conviction. How different would the numbers need to have been had his victims been white? And then what if Holtzclaw was black? These are intriguing (and depressing) thought experiments, but ones that can only be speculative.
One thing that is not speculation is that the Holtzclaw case has very little to do with police accountability. Holtzclaw was not convicted of rape after his defense attorney argued that his rapes were justified because he feared for his life or had to commit rape in the line of duty. This was not a cop held accountable. This was a rapist held accountable.
The police accountability that actually could have mattered would have been during the commission of his crimes. Holtzclaw was allowed to travel out into the community with a gun and a badge, completely untethered to any semblance of oversight.
Holtzclaw often worked shifts, alone, from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. in one of the state’s poorest neighborhoods. Twelve women and one teenage girl, all Black, and ranging in age from 17 to 58, shared testimony that showed a pattern: Holtzclaw would stop them, search them for drugs or drug paraphernalia and run criminal background checks on them. He would leverage anything he found or learned to secure their silence before sexually assaulting them, threatening arrest if they didn’t acquiesce. Their stories are devastating and betray a clear pattern of behavior by Holtzclaw.
He worked alone. The trial evidence would show that some of his actions were monitored, but it didn’t matter because no one was paying any attention. This presents the alarming fact that while our bus drivers and mail carriers must account for their routes and times, police do not. Had even the slightest modicum of oversight been administered to Officer Holtzclaw, perhaps he would have been found out long ago.
But he wasn’t. He continued to use the power of the badge to victimize poor, black women. It was not until the thirteenth woman reported his abuse that the police decided to even check and see if the cop in their employ was a proper public servant or serial rapist.
Number 13 (known in court as J.L.) was not the first victim to report Holtzclaw.
At the hospital, J.L. met Detective Kim Davis of the Oklahoma City Police Sex Crimes Unit. It was Davis who connected the dots. J.L.’s report reminded her of a similar unsolved assault report involving an officer in May. A woman, referred to as T.M. in the court documents, reported that an unidentified police officer had sexually assaulted her on May 8. T.M. was found with a crack pipe in her purse when Holtzclaw forced her to perform oral sex in exchange for her freedom. After the assault, Holtzclaw drove her towards an open field where T.M. panicked and began to scream. Immediately changing his mind, Holtzclaw dropped her off at a different location. After T.M. showed Detective Rocky Gregory the route they took, Gregory compared her directions to the GPS system in Holtzclaw’s patrol car. They were an exact match.
Number 13 reported her crime on June 18, 2014, six weeks later. Aside from her and T.M., all the other victims remained silent. Every fear that kept them silent was valid. They were poor and black. Their rapist was a cop.
Holtzclaw deliberately exploited a vast power differential between himself and his victims. He was a police officer. In enforcing our laws, we have become all too aware that cops have the ability to enforce or break the law as they see fit. For many cops, this means performing a job focused on arrest at any cost instead of forwarding any greater social purpose (safety, community, prosperity, etc.).
For Holtzclaw, this meant he was free to engage in serial rape. He knew that he was covered by the inherent fear that these poor black communities have of the police. People fear the police because they can beat and kill with no consequence. People fear the police because they can falsely arrest and charge with the blind support of prosecutors and district attorneys. For communities like the one in which Holtzclaw preyed, blowing the whistle on a cop tends to only be a dog whistle. And those dogs will bite.
Beyond the silencing effect of the uniform, Holtzclaw also knew that his victims were at the bottom of the pecking order of our social power structure. Poor black women who would accuse a cop of rape. He victimized these women specifically because they were black and powerless.
Until Number 13.
Once she came forward, the investigation really took off (and by “took off” I mean actually began). After connecting Number 13 to the previous victim, T.M., the investigators went through Holtzclaw’s records and spoke to the women named in those reports. Six reported that Holtzclaw had sexually assaulted them. All six were black.
Once the police had this information, they expanded their investigation and located five more women who also accused Holtzclaw of sexually assaulting them in a similar manner to the others. All five were black.
The racial component of Holtzclaw’s crimes is immensely disturbing. Not because of what it says about him, but because of what it says about us. Holtzclaw exploited a system that we have established. He made a bet that poor black women from the wrong side of town would be so terrified of a criminal justice system that consistently and unjustly beats them and their families down, that they would avoid willing entry into that system altogether. Or if one slipped through the cracks and reported him, the police wouldn’t care. And he was right.
Until Number 13.
All thirteen women showed immense bravery. But for the next victim, unless she has twelve other people telling the same story, will her bravery be rewarded?
If there are officers out there like Holtzclaw (it would be foolish to assume there aren’t), the landscape of police power and racial powerlessness exists virtually unchanged. Sadly, the conviction of Daniel Holtzclaw is not progress. He was merely a cop who exploited society’s ills to serially commit heinous crimes. His conviction is just a conviction.