Tag: sexual assault

A Sexual Misconduct Investigation at a Rural Sheriff’s Department Highlights Gaps in State Police Oversight Laws

An Okanogan County Sheriff's Truck
An Okanogan County Sheriff’s Vehicle (Flickr: Diamondback Covers)

By Paul Kiefer

Maddesyn George spent much of the past year sitting in a cell in the Spokane County jail, awaiting her sentencing in an increasingly visible federal murder case. George, a 27-year-old from the Colville Reservation in north-central Washington, says she shot and killed her rapist in July 2020. After Colville tribal police took her into custody, she elaborated, telling prosecutors that the victim—Kristopher Graber, a man who sometimes sold her methamphetamine—had raped her at gunpoint at his house in Omak a day earlier. She stole his gun and fled, but she did not call 911 to report the rape to police in Omak: a detail that became relevant to her case, when prosecutors challenged her rape allegations. A day later, Graber caught up to her on the reservation, where George shot him with his own gun.

When tribal and federal prosecutors asked George why she hadn’t called the police to report her rape, she mentioned that she had reasons not to trust law enforcement in Omak. At the time, her reasoning seemed obvious: George is a Native American woman with a record of substance abuse, and she did not trust the county sheriff’s office to treat her fairly. But in late September, with her sentencing hearing approaching, George revealed another reason why she did not initially report her rape to local law enforcement: An Okanogan County Sheriff’s detective named Isaiah Holloway.

In purely geographic terms, Okanogan County is the largest in the state. But in many ways, the county is a small place. The remote stretch of mountains and plateaus along the Canadian border has a population of just 40,000; the largest town, Omak, is home to 5,000 of them. And the Okanogan County Sheriff’s Department, which patrols most of the county, has only three dozen sworn officers. In an agency as small as the Okanogan County Sheriff’s Department, a single case of misconduct can escalate dramatically. And Isaiah Holloway, at the center of two sexual misconduct complaints, is a prime example.

A fundamental lack of oversight on nearly every level in Washington leads to situations like the one that is still unfolding in Okanogan County, which highlights shortcomings in state rules about police officers and consent—and the power of law enforcement and prosecutors to decide whether misconduct matters.

George first recalls meeting Holloway during a traffic stop on a hot summer day in 2014, when Holloway stopped the car driven by a friend of hers to arrest the driver on a warrant from the Washington Department of Corrections. After placing her friend in handcuffs, Holloway began flirting with George, who was sitting in the passenger seat. When he asked to keep in touch, she gave him a fake phone number.

“A couple of days later, he tracked me down at a friend’s house,” she wrote in her statement to the federal court. “I still don’t know how he found me. He came to the door and said that it was ‘f—-d up’ that I gave him a fake number.” From that point on, she couldn’t avoid Holloway. For months, she wrote, Holloway regularly messaged her on Facebook, at one point telling her “that if [she] didn’t go out on a date with him,” she would “face greater scrutiny from police.” On other occasions, she added, he asked her to “get a room” with him. Increasingly uncomfortable with Holloway’s attention, George moved to a new town to avoid him. So when Graber allegedly raped her in Omak—a town within Holloway’s jurisdiction—George argues that she had a reason not to call 911.

George’s statement to the court didn’t include any evidence of Holloway’s alleged harassment. But she isn’t the first person to accuse Holloway of sexual misconduct; in fact, the detective admitted to another inappropriate sexual relationship last spring. However, because of holes in Washington’s laws about oversight for police and prosecutors—and about police officers and sexual consent—Holloway’s confession remained buried for nearly a year.

Washington state law is mostly silent on the question of consent between police officers and vulnerable people they meet in the course of their law enforcement work, which makes it easy for officers to pursue dubiously consensual sexual “relationships” without facing consequences. And one of the few potential long-term punishments for committing sexual misconduct—inclusion on a so-called “Brady List” of untrustworthy officers, which can make it harder to perform some key duties of a police officer—is entirely up to local law enforcement agencies and prosecutors, who get to draw their own conclusions about what makes the cut.

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A fundamental lack of oversight on nearly every level in Washington leads to situations like the one that is still unfolding in Okanogan County, which highlights shortcomings in state rules about police officers and consent—and the power of law enforcement and prosecutors to decide what kinds of misconduct matter.

The pivotal investigation into Holloway began with a phone call to Deputy Rochelle Cline, the department’s communications manager, in March 2020. According to the caller, Holloway was having a sexual affair with a woman—who, for privacy reasons, PubliCola will refer to as B—whose history of addiction often landed her in the hands of the sheriff’s department; the caller also alleged that Holloway helped the woman “get out of her charges.” The caller was B’s brother.

The following afternoon, Holloway texted Cline unprompted, admitting to his relationship with B. He told Cline that his father’s death in 2017 and a 2019 incident in which he shot and injured a murder suspect had sent his mental health into a downward spiral. “I have tried to cover it all up for this ‘tough guy’ cop job I thought we had to be,” he wrote. “Instead of seeking help, I fell into a world of porn addiction, sexting and now an affair. I need help and I’m not sure where to turn to.” Cline, along with Sheriff Tony Hawley, drove to Holloway’s house to put him in touch with a counselor. Later that night, the department placed him on administrative leave.

Holloway did not respond to PubliCola’s requests for comment on the investigation and George’s allegations. 

The ensuing investigation provided only a little clarity. B herself denied having any intimate relationship with Holloway—a claim Cline quickly dismissed. Holloway told Cline that his “affair” with B began when he caught B with stolen property in December 2019. Instead of arresting her, Holloway relied on B to find the suspected thief; he also passed her his personal phone number. While he admitted to having sex with B twice while off-duty, he denied that he had helped her avoid arrest, pointing to an incident in which he ticketed her for driving with suspended license.

B’s family, on the other hand, insisted that Holloway was not simply having an affair; in their view, he was taking advantage of a woman struggling with addiction. B herself was unavailable to comment, but her brother told Cline he that suspected Holloway helped his sister avoid arrest. B’s sister made similar allegations when she spoke to Cline during the misconduct investigation, recalling that B was frustrated when Holloway didn’t intervene to stop a fellow officer from arresting her for theft. In her investigation report, Cline claimed that other sheriff’s officers had booked B into custody 12 times between April 2019 and March 2020 alone—evidence, she wrote in her report, that Holloway was not protecting B from his colleagues in exchange for sex.

A state law passed earlier this year specified that law enforcement officers can’t engage in consensual sex with a “person incarcerated or detained,” and provides an avenue for proving that an officer coerced a person into sex without formally detaining them, although this can be challenging to prove after the fact.

In May, the sheriff’s office concluded that Holloway had violated a half-dozen department rules, including policies prohibiting officers from using their positions for personal gain and from developing close relationships with “practicing criminal[s].” As punishment, the department suspended Holloway for three days without pay. Less than a year after this brief suspension, the office promoted Holloway from deputy to detective, assigning him largely to sex crimes cases.

Holloway’s disciplinary record at the Okanogan Sheriff’s Office doesn’t mention the possibility that he took advantage of B’s addiction and criminal record to coerce her into sex. Washington law prohibits officers from having sex with people in custody—doing so would constitute sexual assault—but according to Riddhi Mukhopadhyay, the director of the Seattle-based Sexual Violence Law Center, state law is less clear when it comes to officers’ sexual relationships with informants, drug users and others in vulnerable positions.

Aside from a state law passed earlier this year to improve Washington’s civil protection order system, which specified that law enforcement officers can’t engage in consensual sex with a “person incarcerated or detained,” state law is silent on the issue of police officers and sexual consent. State law does not address scenarios in which officers coerce a person into sex without formally detaining them: an encounter than can be challenging to prove after the fact.

The same is true for a quid-pro-quo exchange of sex for leniency: if an officer offers not to arrest someone in return for sex, the arrangement might not leave any paper trail. Even if a police officer did coerce a vulnerable person into sex, the victim might not feel safe enough to blow the whistle. “Based on the power dynamics of sexual violence,” Mukhopadyay said, “we know that predators in positions of power will target and victimize someone who is particularly vulnerable and could be easily dismissed—a victim with a criminal history, a victim who may have mental health issues, a victim in a subordinate position.” Continue reading “A Sexual Misconduct Investigation at a Rural Sheriff’s Department Highlights Gaps in State Police Oversight Laws”

Aziz Ansari Isn’t Harvey Weinstein. That Doesn’t Mean We Can’t Talk About Boundaries and Consent.

This post originally ran at the South Seattle Emerald. 

It has been two weeks since a formerly obscure website called Babe.net published a piece describing a troubling sexual encounter between an anonymous 23-year-old woman, “Grace,” and 34-year-old comedian Aziz Ansari.

According to Grace’s account, Ansari pressured her to have sex with him, placed her hand on his crotch a half-dozen times, pointed to his penis and motioned for her to give him oral sex, and repeatedly shoved his fingers down her throat. Grace said she gave Ansari numerous verbal and nonverbal cues that she wanted to stop or slow down—leaving the room, telling him “no,” saying that she didn’t want to feel “forced,” and even going limp and “cold” while he tried to kiss her. Eventually, Grace got up and left, texting Ansari later to say that she had been deeply uncomfortable with their encounter.

For a second, it seemed like we were going to finally have a national conversation about sexual coercion, consent, female pleasure, and male privilege. It seemed inevitable that we would discuss the profoundly disturbing fact that even in the era of #TimesUp #MeToo, a shockingly high percentage of sexual encounters between men and women end with the woman “giving in,” or going numb, or leaving in tears.

 

But then, after a minute or an hour or another drink, he decides to keep pushing, and now he’s pawing at your clothes or pushing your head down into his lap or putting your hand on his crotch, hoping to wear down your resistance. After all, pushing has worked for him so many times—like all men, he’s been taught explicitly or implicitly that sex is a negotiation, in which the man badgers and the woman relents.

 

But that conversation was quickly sidelined by the backlash to Grace’s story—by feminists who said the sloppiness of Babe’s reporting undermined the larger conversation about consent, by left-leaning women who mocked Grace’s experience as a rite of passage that young women must suffer, by anti-feminists who said that even discussing Ansari in the context of “real” offenders like Harvey Weinstein undermined the #MeToo movement, and by other anti-feminists who argued that requiring men to read women’s signals or listen to their words somehow infantilizes women. Ansari, an experienced actor and comedian who wrote a best-selling book about relationships between men and women, was given the benefit of doubt and forbearance one would grant a small child, as someone who couldn’t possibly be expected to read minds, as an “aspirational” Muslim who was being “assassinated” by a vindictive woman, as a young man “in the confused beginning [of his] dating [life].” (Ansari will turn 35 next month).

Fewer people wanted to talk about the central issue the story raised, which is the fact that lack of consent exists on a spectrum, and that encounters where women just give in is part of that continuum, just like violent rape and partner rape and sexual assault against women too drunk to consent. But because our society still requires perfect victims and multiple witnesses and multiple accusations from multiple women to even consider the possibility that a man has committed sexual assault, we rarely get close to discussing the grayer areas of the spectrum, where men who would never consider violently raping a woman think nothing of pushing and pushing until they get their way.

And yet virtually every woman has been in the exact kind of situation Grace describes. You’re alone with a man, fooling around, and at some point, you establish a boundary. Most likely, you do it gently, especially if the man you’re alone with is someone you don’t know well. “Can we just slow down for a minute?” “I don’t feel comfortable doing that right now.” “Let’s go in the other room and talk for a while.” “Can you be a little more gentle?” “I’m not ready for this.”

He may pause for a while, and you think, “Whew. That’s over.” “Of course,” he says, leading you into the next room. But then, after a minute or an hour or another drink, he decides to keep pushing, and now he’s pawing at your clothes or pushing your head down into his lap or putting your hand on his crotch, hoping to wear down your resistance. After all, pushing has worked for him so many times—like all men, he’s been taught explicitly or implicitly that sex is a negotiation, in which the man badgers until the woman relents.

“Bad sex” is sex he takes from you. “Bad sex” is sex where you leave your body and just let it happen. “Bad sex” is any sexual activity that you don’t really want to do, but you do anyway, because it’s the only way to make him stop pestering you. “Bad sex” is sex you give him because it would cost too much to slap him in the face, or tell him to fuck off, or get up and leave.

 

Eventually, you may get up and leave. Or you may go limp. You may stop moving your lips and turn cold, as Grace did. You may take another drink and let the numbness sink into your bones. You may lie back and wait until it’s over or give him whatever it is he wants and sort of float somewhere outside your body while it happens. You may tell yourself, “This will be over in a minute, then I can leave and never see this guy again.” Or you may see him again and offer timidly, “Hey, it was a little weird when….” You may go home with him again and hope it will be better this time.

What you are not too likely to do is slap him, punch him, or run out the door—the solutions many writers have offered up for women trying to escape an uncomfortable situation, usually preceded by “Why didn’t she….” Usually, what makes women stay isn’t a fear of physical violence. It’s the fact that women are socialized, starting practically at birth, never to make things ugly, or hurt a man’s feelings, or give offense. Unlearning those lessons is harder than just walking away from awful sexual encounters, too, because they’re embedded in every facet of women’s lives, from the expectation that we let men talk over us in meetings and present our ideas as their own to the fact that many of us say “I’m sorry” a hundred times a day, not because we are sorry but because we’ve been taught, by instruction and example, that that’s how women get by.

So you sit there, or you lie there, and let him take what he wants, whether it’s oral sex or more nudity than you’re comfortable with or touching you somewhere you don’t want to be touched. One writer described this latter scenario as a game of “touch-roulette … you try to decide the least awful places and ways to let this person touch you because you’re not getting out of the night without letting him touch something in some way.” It is gross and demeaning and dehumanizing. And for straight, sexually active women, it’s a near-universal experience.

We even have a name for it: “Bad sex.”

“Bad sex” is sex he takes from you. “Bad sex” is sex where you leave your body and just let it happen. “Bad sex” is sex where you fake an orgasm to get it over with, because that’s part of the performance he expects. “Bad sex” is any sexual activity that you don’t really want to do, but you do anyway, because it’s the only way to make him stop pestering you. “Bad sex” is sex you give him because it would cost too much to slap him in the face, or tell him to fuck off, or get up and leave.

What “bad sex” isn’t is bad sex. It’s sexual coercion, and it exists on the exact same spectrum as Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose. The existence of a spectrum—and, yes, gray areas—doesn’t mean that we should only discuss one end of that spectrum, the part everyone can agree is unequivocally bad. Despite what you may have heard,  women are more than capable of understanding the difference between violent rape and sexual harassment and sex you said no to but ended up letting him do to you anyway. We should be talking about all of it.

We’re still crossing ten lanes of traffic to find excuses for predatory men’s behavior, and to find reasons to discount women’s stories. We’re still more concerned about the entirely fictional ruination of men like Aziz Ansari than we are about the women they hurt.

 

In fact, the fact that “bad sex” happens so often—and has so many apologists—is a reason to talk about that end of the spectrum of nonconsensual sex more. It’s 2018, and we’re still earnestly debating whether consent has to be enthusiastic, and whether we should put all or just most of the blame on women when men fail to read our mysterious “signals.” We’re still wondering whether men are just too dense or lack the emotional intelligence to perceive whether their sexual partners are actively participating or just acquiescing. We’re still fretting more about whether a report about a sexually coercive encounter was thoroughly reported than the fact that coercive sex is ubiquitous.

We’re still more concerned about the entirely fictional ruination of men like Aziz Ansari than we are about the women they hurt. (See, just this morning, anti-faminist writer Caitlyn Flanagan’s latest concern-trolling piece claiming that society has punished Ansari and Harvey Weinstein equally.) We’re still crossing ten lanes of traffic to find excuses for predatory men’s behavior, and to find reasons to discount women’s stories. (She’s too young to know that what she went through was normal; she just wanted to get famous; she has it in for him; she did something and then regretted it the morning after and now she’s trying to blame the man.) We’re still treating enthusiastic consent, the idea that sex should be pleasurable to both parties, as a new and radical concept, one that men will need a good long time to grasp and put into practice. “Bad sex,” to men, is sex that ends with a slightly suboptimal orgasm. To women, it’s sex that ends with us leaving in tears. Why is that acceptable to anyone?

And yet, there are reasons for optimism. Social change often happens quickly. (Affirmative consent isn’t a new concept anyway—I learned about it in college, and Carole Pateman, among others, was writing a counternarrative about consent back in 1980.) Marijuana, once considered as dangerous as heroin, is now legal in some form in all but a handful of states. Abortion was illegal almost everywhere, then became legal, with restrictions, virtually overnight. Same-sex marriage was unthinkable in mainstream political circles 20 years ago, but now it’s the law across much of the land.

The most optimistic reading of all the #MeToo backlash, including the fevered defenses of Ansari against an imaginary horde of radical feminists out to ruin his career and reputation, is that it’s a sign that women’s sexual autonomy is being normalized. Sometimes, the voices favoring a retrograde status quo are loudest just before an epochal shift. Maybe this backlash is a death rattle.