The woman said she was high and walking alone when the cop stopped her. He searched her, she said, finding a crack pipe, which he told her to smash. Then he drove to her house and raped her on her own bed, keeping his gun belt on during the ordeal, she testified.
The witness is one of 13 black women who have accused Daniel Holtzclaw, 28, a former Oklahoma City police officer, of sexually assaulting them while on duty. Holtzclaw faces 36 counts, including sexual battery, forcible oral sodomy and rape. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
As she spoke to the court two weeks ago about her alleged rape, the woman wore an orange uniform, her hands and feet in shackles, as she herself was currently jailed on a drug charge.
It was hard not to see the moment as symbolic. The 13 women who came forward — many of whom have criminal records and substance abuse problems — have faced attacks on their credibility during the course of the trial. Because of their histories, it seemed they were on trial as much as Holtzclaw.
As the case draws to a close, a picture has emerged of a predator who allegedly targeted the most vulnerable women in society using the power of the badge. Holtzclaw would stop the women in his patrol car, often when they were walking alone. He’d search them for drugs and run criminal background checks to see if they had a record, or were wanted on a warrant. Then, they said, he would force them into sex, threatening them with arrest if they didn’t comply.
“What kind of police do you call on the police?”One of the witnesses, who was only 17 at the time of the alleged rape.
One woman alleged that she was handcuffed to a hospital bed, high on PCP, when Holtzclaw forced her to perform oral sex on him. Another woman testified that Holtzclaw ran her name and found out she had city warrants, and then drove her to an abandoned school and raped her.
Another victim explained to the court that she didn’t tell anyone about Holtzclaw’s alleged abuse because she’d “never been on the right side of the law.” The last woman to testify, who was only 17 at the time of her alleged rape, summarized the group sentiment with one salient and heartbreaking question: “What kind of police do you call on the police?”
The alleged assaults occurred over a period of seven months. The investigation into Holtzclaw was triggered after one victim, who has been identified by local media as a 57-year-old grandmother, went to the police and reported a sexual assault.
A recent Associated Press investigation of sexual misconduct by U.S. law enforcement found almost 1,000 cops who lost their badges over a six-year period for sexual misconduct — a number the AP called “unquestionably an undercount.”
But while the country is in the midst of a serious reckoning with police brutality after a string of high-profile cases of black men and boys being killed by cops (see: Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Laquan McDonald, Freddie Gray, Robert Chambers and on and on), the Holtzclaw case has failed to capture national attention.
“It’s because they’re black women, they’re poor women,” said Grace Franklin, activist and co-founder of OKC Artists For Justice, who has been organizing support for the victims.
She said that Holtzclaw’s defense attorney was very aggressive when cross-examining the women, constantly reminding the jury of their various criminal records and histories of drug use in an attempt to destroy their credibility. “[Holtzclaw] purposely chose them because of those things,” Franklin said.
“They are not the perfect victims, because that doesn’t exist.”Salamishah Tillet, co-founder of the nonprofit group A Long Walk Home.
She said she was optimistic about the outcome of the trial because of the physical evidence and testimony presented, including DNA evidence.
“We want this case to be a warning for this country to wake up and deal with the rape and sexual assault epidemic that’s happening right now,” she said.
Salamishah Tillet, co-founder of the nonprofit group A Long Walk Home, said she was disappointed the trial hasn’t resulted in a greater public outcry, given that it involves a trifecta of police brutality, racism and sexual violence.
“You have the most vulnerable population experiencing an intersection of violence here, and it’s not surprising that they remain invisible in a lot of ways,” she said.
Tillet said the lack of interest was likely due in part to the nature of the offense: Sexual violence is just not taken as seriously as other crimes.
“The fact that these women were sexually assaulted by a police officer fits squarely within a narrative of racial inequality and racial violence, but we don’t call it that because they were women,” she said. “They are not the perfect victims, because that doesn’t exist.”
Closing arguments are scheduled for Monday. An all-white jury will decide Holtzclaw’s fate.