Abuse of Power

Few things compel me to write in the first person, but go ahead and google 'police and sexual assault.' Below the entries relating to police units that deal with sexual assault, there should be about five entries on the first page alone concerning police officers who were charged and/or convicted of committing sexual assault. Just today, USA Today reported an alleged sexual attack by a supervisor of a sex crimes investigation unit in Pennsylvania on a 23 year-old woman with whom he was volunteering at an Emergency Medical Services center. Oh the sick, sick irony.

Today I also learned more about San Antonio Police Department's Officer Gabriel Villarreal, who I have nicknamed "Creepy Cop." I first heard of Creepy Cop when the Express-News reported that he was accused of improperly pursuing a woman by staging a response to a 911 call that the woman claimed she never made. Turns out he had met her the day before while he was shopping at La Cantera with his wife and daughter. The woman sold him some shaving products, and then there he was the next day on her doorstep at 8:30 a.m., asking if she had a husband and making her uncomfortable. Initially it was almost humorous, some desperate cop stupidly abusing his authority and getting called out on it by the woman, who smartly reported the sketchy incident to SAPD internal affairs. Today's follow-up story however, paints a much more disturbing picture. Not only had Creepy Cop definitely used police department resources to freak out the salesgirl of his dreams, he repeatedly used police information from cell phone records to vehicle registration to cull personal details about seven different women, from their home addresses to their father's names, during a three-month period last year.

Thus far, Villarreal stands accused only of using SAPD resources to be a really creepy guy, which is more than enough reason for his department to can him, which they've already done. But his actions throw into question SAPD's tolerance of such blatantly sexist behavior among members in its force. Along with Villarreal, two other officers have been disciplined for discussing Villarreal's pursuit of two of these women and making sleazy comments with him about other women. Immediately, the story reminded me of an even more disturbing case I reported on a couple of years ago. I covered the trial of Jimmy Fennell, Jr., a Georgetown, Tex. police officer who was eventually convicted of kidnapping and improper sexual activity with a person in custody for allegedly raping a woman involved in a domestic dispute call he answered. Fennell is now in prison, but serving a much lighter sentence than he might have had Georgetown Police Department not bungled the investigation. There were even allegations that Fennell tampered with evidence after he was alerted to being under internal investigation.

The Villarreal story reminded me of Fennell because during the trial, it came to light that Fennell had offered to waive a traffic ticket of a woman if she would give him a lap dance. She filed a complaint with the Travis County Sheriff's Office in 2004. Yet in 2007, Fennell was still working, feeling confident enough to demand sexual favors from the woman involved in the domestic dispute. In fact, she had called the police department to report the rape immediately after it occurred and was then shocked to find Fennell respond to that call as well. As a woman, I wondered when Eli Roth would mine this story for his next horror film, because I can imagine few things more terrifying than being in a domestic dispute, calling the cops, getting raped by the cop who said he would help me, calling the cops again, and discovering the one sent to "serve and protect" me is none other than the same rapist. Villarreal's story is a little less frightening, but only because it (hopefully) ends with his sad semi-stalking. No woman, let alone no citizen, should ever have "rape" or "stalking" included in possible outcomes of their interactions with a government department created to make them feel safe.

Little things, like officers feeling free to discuss their civilian sexual fantasies or proclivities while on duty, also allow officers to feel free to use their on-duty resources to further those fantasies' fulfillment, like demand a lap dance during a traffic stop, or visit a hottie's house on trumped-up official business. These bad officers, who drag the truly good officers through the mud during these scandals, feel comfortable enough sharing their antics with fellow officers, as Villarreal did, or asking them to cover for them when shit goes down, as Fennell did, to falsely believe that they are above the law they are sworn to uphold. Kudos to the San Antonio Police Department for making an example of Creepy Cop and his cohorts, but I hope they go a few steps further in eradicating any signs of the permissive professional culture that allows any officer to think for one second that they can use their power to abuse citizens' rights for their own illicit gain.

I contacted the SAPD about their policies concerning behavior like Villarreal's, asking for specific code of conduct or training that relates to using police equipment for personal reasons and their policy toward the several inappropriate sexual remarks made by Villarreal turned up by their own internal investigation, and whether they plan to review these policies in light of the Villarreal investigation. I await their specific answers and hope to update soon.

UPDATE: Thus far, the SAPD's answers have not been as specific as I'd hoped, but they are working on getting several documents I requested. SAPD Public Information Officer Matt Porter did call to make sure "we're on the same page" when talking about Villarreal's conduct and the department's response. Via e-mail, I asked several questions directly about the way SAPD officers are trained about sexual harassment (specifically what they call "external," meaning of civilians, not of other officers), can report sexual harassment or related questionable behavior, are punished if found to be engaging in improper sexual behavior on or off work. What I gleaned from Porter during our call is that this matter is not officially one of sexual harassment. His department stated "Police terminals are to be used for police related matters only and not for personal use," in explanation of their measures to prevent actions like Villarreal's from occurring. So, thus far, Villarreal's punishment seems to stem not from the reported "crude, suggestive, disparaging" remarks (h/t Express-News) Villarreal engaged in with his co-workers via electronic communication on their terminals (laptops in laymen's terms), but the fact that he discussed any non-police business on the official equipment at all.

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