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On the Complexities of Calling 911, Even in Cases of Sexual Violence

A police abolitionist and anti-rape advocate explains why involving the police doesn’t always ensure safety.

BY Alisa Bierria

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Sexual violence by police officers is 'widespread, systemic and almost routine.' What do you do if the agency that society says will keep you safe is also a known violent institution?

The possibility of ending systems of policing has been getting more mainstream attention. Hesitation about abolishing these systems, however, often turns on the question, “But what about violent crime?” And, more specifically, “What about rape and violence against women?” “What about rape?” reflects a legitimate concern about ending gender violence. But raising the specter of rape has also been used as a racist tactic. For example, Trump has used false and racist claims about sexual violence perpetrated by “criminal illegal aliens” to justify the disappearance of thousands of people into immigrant prison camps. In the 19th and 20th centuries, rape was used to justify the lynching of thousands of Black people. We must not only debunk these claims, but also approach the violence of policing and the violence of rape as connected political issues.

Law enforcement officers and systems of policing are often themselves agents of violence, particularly sexual violence. In Invisible No More: Police Violence against Black Women and Women of Color, Andrea Ritchie cites studies showing that sexual violence by police officers is “widespread, systemic and almost routine.” This reality puts survivors in an impossible bind: What do you do if the agency that society says will keep you safe is also a known violent institution that may put you in harm’s way? To unravel this bind, we must reimagine the question from the perspective of collective responsibility. That is, given the fact of systemic police violence, what should we do to support survivors of sexual violence? I recommend a three-pronged strategy: Inform, transform, invent.

First, if a survivor of rape feels the best thing to do is call the police, then friends, family, allies and advocates should support them in doing so. But what does ethical support look like? Supporters should provide survivors with an informed and honest picture of what will and could happen after the police report is filed. For example, some states have “dual arrest” policies that can lead to the arrest of or harm to survivors of domestic violence. Supporters should also work with survivors to develop a safety plan if police mistreat or arrest them. Such a plan could designate a contact person to communicate to others if the survivor is arrested or detained, locate pro bono attorneys or legal advocates, establish a care plan for the survivor’s children, or, in the case of arrest, develop a mobilization plan (showing up at court hearings or fundraising for legal support). Carceral-conscious safety planning is critical for survivors who are more likely to be subject to criminalization—survivors who are trans/queer, Black, Indigenous, immigrants, women and girls of color, disabled, poor, in the sex industry, or have criminal records.

Second, transformative policy strategies can begin to address the harm that policing does to survivors and our communities. Activists have called for reforms that include: establishing independent community review boards that include survivors of police violence, with real power to investigate police and eject offenders from police forces; ending the political influence of police unions and policing lobbies; demilitarizing the police, including eliminating military-grade equipment; better enforcing policies that prohibit police officers from on- and off-duty sexual misconduct, including violence against those in the sex industry and those held in custody; developing nonpunitive responses to mental health calls; ending mandatory arrest policies; and decriminalizing sex work, migration and actions taken to survive violence, such as self-defense or coerced actions. These reforms could begin a process of prioritizing community and survivor safety over state authority.

Third, survivors and allies must continue to invent and cultivate alternative forms of support and safety. Imagining alternatives while in a crisis is difficult, especially if you don’t already have trusted friends and family. This is why grassroots efforts to develop transformative justice strategies are so important. Groups such as Creative Interventions, Just Practice and the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective have developed tools, curricula and models to train and prepare community networks to support people if they are harmed, to pursue a process with those who caused harm to secure accountability and prevent further violence, and to transform social practices that enable sexual violence, such as dehumanization, minimizing violence or blaming survivors.

Ultimately, policing in this country is so structurally entrenched in settler colonialism, anti-black violence and various forms of deadly social control that it demands an abolitionist response. Effective abolitionist responses to policing can only be in alignment and solidarity with the political priority of ending sexual violence and rape culture. Our political strategies must recognize that gender violence and state violence are not isolated or oppositional, but integral to each other.


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Alisa Bierria s an assistant professor in ethnic studies at the University of California, Riverside, and a co-founder of the national organizing project Survived and Punished. She is also a co-editor of Community Accountability: Emerging Movements to Transform Violence, a special issue of Social Justice: A Journal of Crime, Conflict and World Order.

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