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Looking at How Black Women Are Policed in America

Three days after her violent arrest following a traffic stop near a small town outside of Houston, Texas, Sandra Bland was found hanged in her jail cell on July 13, 2015. Photo courtesy of Ashley Anderson.

Earlier this summer in Bakersfield, California, Tatyana Hargrove, a 19-year-old Black woman, was riding her bicycle to a store to buy a Father’s Day gift. She was stopped on the way home by police officers who subsequently punched her in the face, slammed her to the ground, turned a police dog on her and arrested her. One of the officers attempted to justify his behavior by alleging that Ms. Hargrove matched the description of another suspect — a 25 year-old black man.

Just last month, video surfaced of Charnesia Corley’s traffic stop in Houston, Texas. According to Ms. Corley’s lawsuit, she was made to strip naked from the waist down on the side of the road. Afterward, “When one of the Deputies tried to insert her fingers into Ms Corley’s vagina, Ms Corley protested. At that point, the deputies forcibly threw Ms Corley to the ground, while she was still handcuffed, pinned her down with her legs spread apart, threatened to break her legs and without consent penetrated her vagina in a purported search for marijuana.”

The experiences of Ms. Hargrove and Ms. Corley demonstrate the level and types of abuse that Black women can face at the hands of the police. While incidents involving Black women and police abuse can often go under-noticed and under-reported, available data from The African American Policy Forum (AAPF), shows that Black women are twice as likely to be stopped by police than white women.  While the discussion has broadened recently to include more conversation on how police misconduct impacts Black women, there is still more work to do. New studies argue that the absence of how Black women suffer from sexual assault, separation from family, and fear of harassment and harm need to receive more attention from the media and activists to bring larger reforms on police misconduct.

In one of the rare national study of police conduct by race and gender, Dr. Jeremy Briggs of Kansas State University found that Black women “Out of all racial and ethnic categories of male and female drivers, white women were most likely to receive a perceived benefit in a traffic stop, such as receiving only a warning or no outcome at all. But the same is not true for Black and Hispanic women, who were just as likely as white men to be ticketed, arrested or searched instead of receiving a warning or no outcome.”

Studies of American cities have reached similar conclusions. This disparity is not limited to major cities, as similar results were found in Durham, North Carolina. Moreover, a study focusing on Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania found that once stopped, Black women were more likely to be frisked — that is, subjected to a “pat down” by an officer — than white women.

Once stopped by the police, Black people are more likely to be subjected to force. As long as Black women are more likely to be stopped by the police, they will remain at risk for being pepper-sprayed, handcuffed, or threatened with a gun. Once an officer points his firearm, there is a risk of deadly force.

Second, the racial disparity in stops of women matters because it puts Black women at a higher risk for sexual abuse or misconduct by the police, such as that experienced by Ms. Corley during her traffic stop. While excessive force is the most frequent complaint made about police officers, sexual misconduct is the second most common complaint. However, sexual abuse by officers may be underreported because of flawed or absent reporting procedures or the victims’ unwillingness to come forward. Hence, officer sexual misconduct is sometimes referred to as a “hidden crime.”

While this crime may be hidden, Black women have a high risk of being victims of this abuse. During a frisk, officers may pat down any areas where they think a gun might be concealed, including intimate areas. Many women report feeling extremely humiliated during these experiences, particularly if the officer is male.  Because Black women are more likely to be stopped by the police, and also more likely to be frisked during these stops, they are at higher risk for being sexually assaulted during a stop. The psychological impact of sexual trauma can last for years.

More data from government or university research that examines how Black women are treated by the police needs to be collected. According the AAPF, “Even where women and girls are present in the data, narratives framing police profiling and lethal force as exclusively male experiences lead researchers, the media, and advocates to exclude them.” We must request that those researching and reporting on police abuse highlight the numbers and stories that show how Black women continue to be harmed by the police.

Encouraging more action on the issue of police abuse against Black women is a necessity. Although Black men are the primary victims from police abuse, the particular concerns that mostly Black women encounter still need addressing. By speaking about women who are killed, sexual assaulted, or otherwise harmed by the police, we shed important light on the topic that too often is in the shadows of policing.

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