Earlier this week, Representatives Joanna McClinton and Christopher Rabb introduced legislation to create the crime of “Sexual Assault by a Police Officer,” House Bill 2709. This incredibly important bill takes the steps to address sexual assault by police officers of those under investigation and in their custody.
In response to recent Black Lives Matter protests, the Pennsylvania General Assembly has introduced and passed several pieces of legislation to increase police accountability and close loopholes that allow for police abuses. The necessity of this legislation cannot be understated; recent journalism has exposed the systematic use of rape and sexual assault as “a legal and legitimate tool of law enforcement” particularly in prostitution arrests. Rep. McClinton said: “Thanks to the amazing research by the folks at the CSE Institute, we know that in the course of investigations, some bad actors in law enforcement will take advantage of trafficked women they suspect are engaging in prostitution. We cannot allow this grotesque abuse of power to continue without repercussions.”
H.B. 256 addressed protections for those in police custody by adding peace officers to the list of state actors forbidden from engaging in sexual conduct with persons under their supervision. H.B. 1841 aims to increase accountability by requiring law enforcement employers disclose employment information as part of background checks, including disciplinary actions. As we’ve previously discussed, neither of these laws go far enough to protect those under investigation or in police custody or hold law enforcement accountable. H.B. 2709 does.
Acknowledging that H.B. 256 did not go far enough, Rep. Rabb: “Governor Wolf signed into law a measure I authored that bans peace officers from engaging in sexual activity with people in their custody, but we must take that further and pass HB 2709 to protect individuals – especially those being trafficked – from deceitful acts by some in law enforcement,”
The bill takes two steps that distinguish it from the bills recently signed into law. First, it creates the distinct crime of “Sexual Assault by a Police Officer.” It is incredibly important that we, as a Commonwealth, hold our police officers to a standard commensurate with the power they hold. This means distinguishing them from other state actors, and holding them responsible when they abuse their power. Currently, institutional sexual assault is limited to those in custody or under official detention. Police officers’ power and responsibility extends far beyond the jail cell—to squad cars, homes, and street corners, as well as undercover investigations into the sex trade. H.B. 2709 addresses this loophole by criminalizing officers who engage in sexual activity with anyone who is (1) being investigated; (2) under arrest; or (3) otherwise in official detention. Expanding the liability of officers for this immoral and outrageous conduct will protect the vulnerable, particularly prostituted persons who have for so long, been subject to the sexual whims of the officersinvestigating them. (See page 16 of our Spring 2020 Report).
Second, the bill creates true consequences for officers who engage in sexual abuse while on duty. Unlike H.B. 1841, which only creates a record of illegal behavior, H.B. 2709 requires that the employment of any officer convicted of “Sexual Assault by a Police Officer” is immediately terminated. That officer is then ineligible for employment as a peace officer anywhere in the Commonwealth including as law enforcement or working in facilities that serve vulnerable individuals (see H.B. 2709 § 3124.4(b)).
The CSE Institute is grateful to Representatives McClinton and Rabb for their work to address misconduct in Pennsylvania’s police force, and we are grateful for their leadership on this important issue. Rep. McClinton said “The time is now to pass HB 2709. I look forward to working with the CSE Institute to get this important legislation over the finish line.”