Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Daniel Holtzclaw Case

The Daniel Holtzclaw trial is in its second week in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.  Holzclaw was a police officer (now fired) who is alleged to have sexually abused* (at least) twelve women and one 17-year-old girl while on duty during the three years of his employment by the Oklahoma police.

What is it that the prosecutors say Holtzclaw did?  They say that he demanded sex** from women by using an extortion tactic:  They say that he targeted poor women with outstanding warrants or who had other reasons to avoid the police.  They say that he then offered to turn a blind eye should his personal sexual needs be catered for.

Holtzclaw was caught when he allegedly used his tactic on a woman who didn't have any outstanding warrants or other reasons to avoid the police, and who went and reported Holtzclaw.

The case has a strong racial flavor:  Holtzclaw's alleged victims were black women, usually middle-aged and poor black women, and Holtzclaw himself is white (with a Japanese mother)***.

What would drive a man to do something like that?  A desire to assault black women?  Picking victims based on the kinds of indicators which would suggest the smallest chance of being caught?  Or both?

I cannot answer those questions, and Holtzclaw hasn't been found guilty yet, so in a legal sense speculation about his possible motives is premature.

But let's think about how gender, race and social class interact in a case like this:  A heterosexual male police officer might target black women, both because they are women and because they are black (at least partly because this reduces the chances of being caught, especially if the women are poor and already in some difficulty with the police).

Thus, the statistical probability that a person becomes the victim of sexual extortion and/or sexual assault by a police officer would be higher for black women than for black men, higher for black women than for white women and higher for poor black women than for wealthier black women (who are less likely to have outstanding unpaid fines etc.)****. 

A rotten police officer of this type could be profiling his victims, seeking those who are least likely to provoke an uproar of any kind.  That his selection would raise the risk of being assaulted by a police officer more for black women than for either black men or white women (or men) is important to understand.  Note that those ending in his net don't have to have had a criminal history or anything similar.  Race and gender become the signals which this man would use.

That's why this problem is not just one about female victims or not just one about black victims.  It's both, and deserves a response which takes those interactions into account.

*  He is tried on

36 counts, including eight counts of rape. He also faces counts of sexual battery, forcible oral sodomy, burglary, stalking, indecent exposure and procuring lewd exhibition.

**More examples here, here and here.

*** The jury finally selected for the trial is also 100% white.  Oklahoma population is 7.7% African-American, based on this source (which probably under-counts African-Americans because of the definition it uses "Black or African-American alone"), so it's not at all impossible to get an all-white jury, even without manipulation, in some areas of Oklahoma.  But is this the case in the Holtzclaw trial?  Oklahoma City has a higher African-American population (14.0% or more based on this source), so much depends on the catchment area for the jury and whether defense lawyers can bar candidates in the jury pool without giving explicit reasons for that.  My apologies for not knowing the necessary legal issues here. 

Still, an all-white jury doesn't create confidence in those following this trial for possible racial bias.

For more on possible jury biases, read here.

****  That's a very dry way of addressing some of the issues Treva Lindsay writes about.  Or a way to put the extra harassment black women receive into the framework of statistical discrimination.