House Bill 256 was recently sent to Governor Wolf to be signed. In part, this bill will finally make it illegal for peace officers to engage in sexual conduct with persons in their custody. Pennsylvania is one of 35 states that do not expressly forbid police from having sexual contact with someone in their custody, a loophole that has especially endangered those in the sex trade. As the law stands, Pennsylvania officers can claim on-duty sexual contact was consensual and mostly escape liability. This defense doesn’t completely shield officers from facing criminal penalties for sexual assaulting someone on the job but has contributed to a climate where such instances have routinely gone unpunished.
However, HB 256 only modifies existing institutional rape laws to add “peace officers” to the list of state actors forbidden from engaging in sexual contact with persons under their supervision or control. Another piece of legislation, HB 1841, which was signed into law on July 14 also aims to increase accountability for problematic police officers. This new law requires an employer to disclose employment information to a law enforcement agency that is conducting a background investigation of an applicant, and to permit a court to compel the release of such employment information if the employer fails to comply. While HB 256 and HB 1841 are steps in the right direction, they still fail to fully address this serious problem.
There are several recent chronicled instances of Pennsylvania police officers and confidential informants engaging in sexual conduct with persons they are investigating. Last summer, The York Daily Record published an investigative piece detailing this problem. A woman interviewed for the piece revealed an instance where an undercover police officer had her remove her clothes, climb into bed and touch his genitals before he placed her under arrest for prostitution. The piece also included another instance where a woman masturbated a police officer for several minutes before being arrested for prostitution. Further, confidential informants are often sent undercover by police to investigate allegations of prostitution, especially in illicit massage businesses.
The most effective way to address such a serious problem is to create an entirely new criminal offense – “sexual assault by peace officer”. Pennsylvania must automatically terminate a person convicted of this criminal offense from their position as a peace officer and preclude them from being rehired as a peace officer anywhere else in the Commonwealth indefinitely. Additionally, compulsory employment record disclosures to law enforcement agencies, as implemented by HB 1841, do not go far enough to protect the Commonwealth. Such records can be incomplete, inaccurate, or reflect viewpoints of supervisors who do not take instances of sexual misconduct seriously. Finally, this new offense must also address confidential informants who engage in sexual conduct under the supervision of police officers.
In the wake of national movements calling for increased police accountability, now is the time to take sufficient action. There is no reason any police officer or confidential informant should ever engage in sexual conduct while on the job. There is also no middle ground when it comes to preventing sexual abuse at the hands of police officers. HB 256 and HB 1841 simply do not go far enough. It is time to fully close this loophole in Pennsylvania and finally put survivors of sexual abuse first.