About a year ago, a routine review of an Ohio Highway Patrol officer’s dashboard camera videotapes found something odd. On one tape, officer Bryan Lee could be seen pulling over a drunk driver, but instead of arresting her, he seemed to be taking his time talking and flirting with her and the passenger. Then he turned off his microphone, sent the drunk driver on her way, and brought her friend into his car.
This strange incident set off an extensive internal investigation that would eventually lead to Lee’s guilty plea in a federal court last week to charges of violating the civil rights of four victims, and cyberstalking.
Before he was caught, he apparently had a practice of offering to tear up traffic tickets in exchange for sex acts and groping drunk drivers while they were handcuffed. In the example above, he took cell phone pictures of the woman naked in his squad car in exchange for letting her friend go. In another example, Lee stalked one of his victims on Facebook after he had coerced her to have sex with him after a traffic stop yielded drugs in her car. He sent her threatening Facebook messages demanding that she send him nude photos of herself. And after sexually assaulting another woman during a drunk driving arrest, he showed up at that victim’s house.
Studies of stalking and stalking victims’ experiences have consistently shown that it is a vastly under-reported crime. It’s an insidious and personal experience, and many victims fear that it won’t be taken seriously, or that they don’t have enough "proof" to make a case.
Being assaulted or stalked by anyone is surely a deeply disturbing experience; when your stalker is a cop, it must inspire a special kind of terror. Police officers have easy access to all kinds of information, tracking technology, and, don’t forget, weapons. Where do you go for help when the people who are meant to keep you safe are the real danger?
“There can be no greater breach of trust or abuse of authority than a police officer exploiting the power of his badge to sexually abuse the very citizens he has sworn to protect,” said Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell about Lee’s case. “Today’s guilty plea should serve as a reminder that nobody is above the law, especially those who have taken an oath to uphold it.”
How often does this kind of thing happen? It’s hard to know, but even a casual Google News search reveals a disturbing number of accounts of rogue police officers using the power of the badge to stalk and intimidate. In August of this year, a cop in New Jersey was indicted for stalking an ex-girlfriend. He harassed and threatened her on social media and through a prepaid anonymous cell phone. (The victim, not knowing it was him, asked for his help to find out who her stalker was; he then accessed a law enforcement investigative database to “help her” solve the case, while continuing to harass her.) In September, a police officer in Colorado was fired for using the agency’s resources to find out where a woman lived and worked so he could call her repeatedly and ask her out. In October, another cop in Pennsylvania and a police chief in Utah were charged with stalking, too. And these are just the folks who have been caught.
In 2012, Jessica Lussenhop wrote for City Pages about one particularly attractive woman who became a common target for snooping and stalking among dozens of police officers in Minnesota. Her driving record (including her photo, address and phone number, and car information) was accessed by 104 police officers in 18 different agencies, 425 times. She was bombarded with texts and phone calls and offers of dates until she came forward and demanded an internal investigation.
Studies of stalking and stalking victims’ experiences have consistently shown that it is a vastly under-reported crime. It’s an insidious and personal experience, and many victims fear that it won’t be taken seriously, or that they don’t have enough “proof” to make a case. When law enforcement does field these kinds of complaints, it’s all the more important that officers remain open-minded and encouraging at every stage of the process. As sociologists B. Joyce Stephens and Peter Sinden wrote in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence about stalking and abuse by partners and ex-partners, “A hostile officer who makes it clear by his demeanor that domestic disputes are not his idea of real police work confirms a victim’s feelings of worthlessness and fears that nothing will be done to change her situation.”
Psychologists explored the factors that influence a stalking victim’s decisions about how and when to get help in a recent issue of the journal Criminal Justice and Behavior. They cited past research that as few as two percent of stalking victims reported the situation to law enforcement, while 70 percent confided in friends and family. People who have been injured or assaulted are more likely to go to authorities than those who feel afraid but who have not (yet) been physically hurt. The researchers also found that victims tend to seek help from friends and family when the stalker was someone they knew, and go to law enforcement when the stalker was a stranger.
But again, what if the law enforcement—stranger or no—is the stalker? One of the victims of Bryan Lee, the out-of-control State Highway Patrol Trooper in Ohio, told theColumbus Dispatchlast week that she had a lawyer contact Lee’s higher-ups about the assault at the time. They didn’t believe her, she said, and her complaints went nowhere. Only the red flags in that routine dash-cam review years later prompted an investigation into Lee’s weird behavior. “It’s almost bittersweet,” she told Eric Lyttle at the Dispatch, “why didn’t they believe me four years ago? I could have stopped all this.”
The National Center for Victims of Crime, which has a special Stalking Resource Center, insists that people who think they are being stalked by police officers, or by any other people in positions of authority, don’t have to go to their local precincts for help if they don’t feel comfortable doing so. They should call either the NCVC or the National Domestic Violence Hotline for help instead.