by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyrigh © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Michael Maryland, Marjorie Cohn, Catherine Mendonça
Jack Bernanker, Bob Kundland, Thomas Streed
“Law enforcement officers are aware of the implications of a single man coming into contact with women in a patrol car,” Thomas Streed, 23-year veteran of the San Diego Sheriff’s Department, said at a public forum on police practices sponsored by the San Diego Debate Club and Activist San Diego’s public radio station KNSJ (89.1 FM) at the San Diego Repertory Theatre November 19. “One thing I was taught in the police academy is that the uniform is a ‘babe magnet.’ Officers are taught to be alert to this particular thing. Some officers have psychopathologies that drive them to victimize people.”
Though the forum was announced as being a debate over whether police in general are doing their jobs or going too far, the words “babe magnet” galvanized the audience and hung over the rest of the event like a cloud. Most of the attendees were skeptical of the police to begin with, and the words “babe magnet” seemed to summarize the whole attitude of law enforcement, especially towards women. It didn’t help that all three of the panelists defending the police were white men of retirement age — the other side included a white man, a white woman and a Latina — or that Streed’s comment was a response to the lead panelist on the other side, Catherine Mendonça of United Against Police Terror — San Diego, telling about how she was a victim of police abuse herself.
“I was sexually assaulted by a Los Angeles police officer a few years ago, and it opened my mind to what police can do with impunity,” Mendonça said. “Rates of sexual assault and domestic violence among police officers are higher than in the general population. I work in a domestic-violence shelter and many women there say they have called police when they’ve been endangered, and the police have done nothing.”
The other two panelists on the “police are going too far” side pointed to Streed’s “babe magnet” remark as evidence of the attitude women victims of sex crimes and domestic violence get from officers, and why such crimes are often not reported at all. “‘Babe magnet’ is quintessential ‘blame the victim’,” said Thomas Jefferson School of Law professor and former National Lawyers’ Guild president Marjorie Cohn. “Women don’t report rapes because they’re afraid the first thing they’ll be asked by the police is, ‘What did you do to deserve it?’”
“Words fail me to describe the nonsensicalness of that statement,” Streed replied. “To suggest that law enforcement officers are challenging women and blaming victims of sexual assault sickens me. In my 23 years in law enforcement I don’t recall anyone suggesting a woman brought sexual assault upon herself.” Streed also tried to explain his “babe magnet” remark, saying that back in his days at the police academy “one thing a training officer said is that in some cases that uniform can constitute a ‘babe magnet.’ Women may be attracted to the uniform.”
The third police skeptic on the panel, civil rights attorney Michael Maryland — who specializes in lawsuits against police departments and individual officers alleging abuse — mentioned the recent conviction of San Diego police officer Anthony Arevalos on six charges from an indictment alleging 21 cases in which Arevalos made improper advances or solicited bribes from women he stopped. The city has also agreed to nearly $9 million in settlements of civil suits brought by women Arevalos victimized. What’s more, allegations have surfaced that Arevalos was merely the tip of the iceberg, and that other officers assigned to the San Diego Police Department’s Sex Crimes Unit, which investigates rapes, routinely made disparaging remarks about women and hung posters in their precinct officers reflecting what women activists call “rape culture.”
Streed’s “babe magnet” comment “raises for me the stories we’ve had of sexual assaults by uniformed SDPD officers,” Maryland said. “The officers who did that felt they could get away with it, and supervisors and middle managers let them get away with it.”
“It’s important we not say ‘all women’ or ‘all police officers,’” said Bob Kundland, a panel member who worked for the SDPD, the Sheriff’s Department and the Marshal’s Department before retiring. He admitted that he didn’t have personal knowledge of “the issues regarding the chain of command” — Maryland’s allegation that SDPD officials let officers they were supposedly supervising get away with sexually harassing women — but said during his time at the SDPD three officers had observed a colleague behaving inappropriately, “and one of them reported it to me.”
“The problem is one of power,” said Maryland. “The police officer has enormous power, and certain people, given that power, will abuse it. The question is how we’re dealing with the small percentage of officers who abuse that power.”
Asked by the debate moderator, former San Diego city attorney Mike Aguirre, if the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department had had similar problems to the SDPD, Streed said, “Every police department has a problem with some police conduct. I provide expert testimony in court as a witness on that kind of behavior. I happen to be concerned with that.”
“There’s tons of evidence that the SDPD sex crimes unit has a number of victim-blaming posters on their walls,” said Mendonça. “Anthony Arevalos was able to get away with it for years.”
“One of the problems is the code of silence,” Maryland added. “Officers are afraid to blow the whistle on other officers. I have represented police officers who have been driven out of their departments for doing the right thing. The police culture makes it difficult for good officers to blow the whistle on their colleagues.”
“If there is a code of silence, it’s disgusting,” Streed replied. “It’s based on a fear of alienating someone who’s around and may not provide backup when it’s needed. But we recognize it and we have put mechanisms into place to address it.”
Aguirre also asked a question about the allegations over the last 30 years that the San Diego Police Department received reports of the murders of 20-plus prostitutes and did little or nothing about it.
“I was the lead investigator on that series, and I haven’t felt safe talking about it since 1983,” Streed said. “We found a lot of people who didn’t do it. There are a lot of questions. At one time we had 48 dead prostitutes. The head guy [on the investigation] said, ‘Get out front with the media,’ and one guy said [at a press conference], ‘Let me assure you. We don’t have a serial killer.’ I turned and looked at him, and one of the other reporters asked me, ‘Dr. Streed, do you agree with that?’ I said, ‘Yes, we have 28 dead bodies and 28 different people could be killing them exactly the same way and dumping them in the same place.’”
Marjorie Cohn reminded the audience that, despite Streed’s arguments with his colleagues, “these crimes were not properly investigated and solved.” She also said you can’t address the issue of police misconduct without talking about race, and in particular the tendency of police officers to treat people of color more harshly than whites in similar situations. “Even President Obama has been pulled over because of his color,” Cohn said. “When you’re Black or brown you’re much more likely to be arrested, convicted and sentenced to death.”
“I represented a police officer who was a victim of racial profiling by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA),” said Maryland. “It can happen to anyone, and we have to make sure law enforcement addresses it.”
“Those engaged in sex work are referred to by police as ‘NHI’ — ‘No Humans Involved,’” said Mendonça. This term, which was first publicized in San Diego in the early 1980’s about the prostitute murder cases, also includes homeless people and Transgender people. “Police have this view based on who they are, not what they do,” Mendonça alleged. Her argument was that by writing off certain classes of people as “not human,” police ensure that they’re more likely to be convicted of crimes and less likely to be protected against crimes in which they’re the victims.
An audience member named Erika asked why 97 out of 100 rapists never get punished at all. The source for her statistic was a recent report by the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), available online at https://rainn.org/news-room/97-of-every-100-rapists-receive-no-punishment.
Retired San Diego County deputy sheriff Jack Bernanker, one of the pro-police panelists, replied, “First of all, if they’re unreported, we don’t even know that [these rapes] occurred.” The RAINN statistics say that 46 percent of rapes are reported to police, but only 12 percent of rapists are arrested, 9 percent are prosecuted, 5 percent are convicted of a felony but only 3 percent ever serve time.
Bernanker also said that when he was in law enforcement, “if there was a rape allegation, it was investigated and a special unit would write the case up and submit it to the D.A.’s office.”
“There is a systemic amount of violence in the U.S., especially against people of color and communities which are underserved,” said Activist San Diego executive director Martin Eder. “Two-thirds of Latinos feel they are likely to be discriminated against by police. The number of unarmed shootings of youth of color, especially Black people, speaks to a police force that has the ethic of controlling the streets and shooting first and asking questions later. Racialized justice has been the norm, not the exception.”
Eder’s comment was the first time anyone alluded to the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri last August. The debate took place five days before the refusal of a Missouri grand jury to indict Wilson for killing Brown touched off demonstrations throughout the U.S., many of which ended in riots. One of the allegations against authorities in Ferguson is that their heavy-handed restrictions on street protests just escalated the situation and made violence more likely.
“Ferguson is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Cohn. “Young Black people are hassled and shot by police every day. [In Ferguson] they’re trying to keep people from protesting, planting officers to spy on protest leaders, making false arrests and staging raids on churches and homes, using acoustic devices and chemical and other weapons, and arresting reporters. When you read the press coverage, think about that.”
“You’re dealing with a lot of people in the community who are going to protest and let their voices be heard,” said Kundland. “What do you do when someone fires a gun, throws something or creates an issue? When does a peaceful protest become a mob and a riot?”
 — As Streed explained it while introducing himself at the event, while working as a San Diego County Sheriff’s Department homicide detective, he also went back to college and majored in psychology to learn more about why criminals behave the way they do. He earned a Masters’ and eventually a Ph.D.