Nel's New Day

February 11, 2013

Indifference Leads to Culture of Rape

“If you think that rapes only happen at Notre Dame or in India or in Steubenville, you are wrong. A person is sexually assaulted in the United States every two minutes, and many of these are in small towns, including where you live. For every 100 rapes, only three lead to jail time for the rapist.”

I wrote this on January 23, 2013 in Nel’s New Day. Since then, the Portland (OR) chief of police, Mike Reece, has shown that his ignorance may promote the culture of rape in this Northwestern city. The media is forcing Reece to rethink his personnel decisions,  but without the prevalence of newspaper articles about his indifference to—or ignorance about—what constitutes sexual contact, a demoted police officer might have continued to direct detectives who investigate sexual assault and human trafficking in this city of over 2 million people.

Reece’s problem went public last summer after a Portland police review board voted 5-1 to fire a captain, Todd Wyatt, because he inappropriately touched female employees and continued a road rage confrontation by pointing a gun at another motorist when he was off duty. Board documents showed that it found him “untruthful” and questioned his ability to perform with integrity. Part of the testimony was an audiotape of Wyatt’s meeting with a subordinate and the employee’s union representative in which he lost his temper and threatened to have the subordinate arrested. One board member “believed that [Wyatt] manipulated the truth in these encounters and never saw himself at fault,” instead mischaracterizing the motives of those who complained about his behavior.

Reece demoted Wyatt to lieutenant and re-assigned him to supervising robbery and sex crimes investigators. Wyatt said that he had apologized to one of the several female employees complaining about his behavior four different times and had attended sexual harassment training four times.

Even Reese has found Wyatt a problem employee. In a lengthy letter after an internal investigation relying on multiple credible witnesses including Washington State patrol officers, Reece showed Wyatt to be a hot-tempered bully who makes insulting and inaccurate snap judgments about civilians, says demeaning things about women, and engages in unwanted thigh-touching at work. Reece also indicated that he reassigned Wyatt to the sex crimes division because he needed “close supervision.”

The letter quoted Washington State patrol officers who described Wyatt as “arrogant and cocky” after they stopped Wyatt following another driver’s 9-1-1 call and faulted Wyatt for escalating the road rage incident. Reece wrote, “Even after six months following the incident, your statements do not reflect a thoughtful and appropriate approach.”

Wyatt’s reference to one woman who complained about his touching was redacted in his disciplinary letter, but the response remains readable: “The victim’s ‘physical appearance or level of education or skill is irrelevant. Your comment is insulting and unprofessional and shows a lack of accountability or awareness as to how your actions are perceived by others.'” In addition, the letter states, “… your [Wyatt’s] response lacks a general sense of awareness of the different points of view regarding power and authority. Additionally, your comments about [redacted] are unprofessional to say the least.”

In a meeting with the editorial board of Portland’s newspaper The Oregonian, Reece said that he didn’t consider the women’s complaints to be “sexual in nature.” The “inappropriate touching” described in the women’s complaints was Wyatt’s rubbing them on their legs and thighs at work. Wyatt claimed that he only touched one of the women on her knee with his knuckle when he said good morning to her.

Since the media attention, Reece has reassigned Wyatt to his own office to handle special projects. Wyatt, who contends that he was the subject of frivolous claims retaliating for his part in contract talks, plans to sue the city over his demotion. The Portland Police Commanding Officers’ Association, which represents lieutenants and captains, also has filed a grievance with the city, challenging Wyatt’s discipline. Rob Wheaton, an AFSCME Local 189 union representative for civilian employees in the police bureau’s records division, dismissed Wyatt’s allegation that the complaints were retaliatory. “I think that shows an exaggerated sense of self worth,” Wheaton said.

According to columnist Susan Nielson, a 2007 city audit of Portland’s rape response found that detectives often see sex crimes as a less desirable assignment, partly because of very high turnover among supervisors. “Many detectives who do come to work in the sexual assault detail,” auditors said, “are waiting until other assignments open elsewhere.” National crime surveys show that the majority of victims of sexual assault don’t go to the police. Victims fear being judged, demeaned, and touched by strangers; they fear people with power will side against them.

Yet Reece chose to send Wyatt to be in charge of these investigators after a series of complaints by his female colleagues about his unwarranted touching. He said, “The women never complained it was a sexual encounter.”

Phyllis Barkhurst, who spent 17 years in Oregon assessing sexual harassment complaints for businesses and local governments, said about Wyatt’s case, “This is inappropriate behavior targeting one gender, and sexual harassment under the law is a form of sexual discrimination.” Sexual harassment is defined as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors or conduct of a sexual nature that’s directed toward a person because of gender. It can include physical touching or graphic comments. Perhaps Reece needs to attend sexual harassment training.

This “culture of indifference” is repeated across the nation.  Members of “the Athletics department and the Penn State administration contributed to a climate where athletes, staff, and faculty within the Athletics program either felt immune from possible repercussions of their actions or felt fearful in reporting what they saw or heard,” according to NOW activist Joanne Tosti-Vasey. Last summer Tosti-Vasey, past president of Pennsylvania NOW, called on “every school in this country [to] heed and change their policies and programs to end any form of campus violence against anyone who steps foot on their campuses.”

The culture of indifference continues with the prosecution of the alleged rape in Steubenville (OH) when perpetrators made a video of carrying a teenage girl from one house to another and raping her. Although Ohio A.G. Mike DeWine stated that “knowledge in and of [the rapes] is not a crime under Ohio law,” a blog pointed out that “Ohio Law decrees that ‘no person, knowing that a felony has been or is being committed, shall knowingly fail to report such information to law enforcement authorities… Whoever violates division (A) or (B) of this section is guilty of failure to report a crime.'”  DeWine criticized the social media for their involvement, but without their participation, it is likely that no one would have been charged in this crime.

Erin Matson reported that the Washington, D.C. police would not file a report about a man who exposed himself to her and masturbated because she didn’t stay with the man until the police came. Her treatment by the police shows a culture of indifference.  Watson’s blog about parent Laura Murphy wanting to ban Toni Morrison’s Beloved for all students in the Fairfax County School District (VA) also demonstrates that parents are trying to shield everyone from the problems that surround them.

Despite the school district’s policy that allow students to opt out of reading assigned texts because of parental objection, Murphy is working for a state law that would require schools to notify parents before sexual topics arise in the classroom so that they can remove their children from the class. When school officials explained that AP English is a college-level class that often involves discussions of adult topics, Murphy said, “To me, mature references means slavery or the Holocaust.”

Murphy’s position that it’s okay talk about the history of the Holocaust in another country but not about the problems in our own community supports the culture of indifference—an attitude that leads to the culture of rape.

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