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"Who Protects and Serves Me?" A Case Study of Sexual Harassment of African American Women in One U.S. Law Enforcement Agency

NCJ Number
Gender & Society Volume: 16 Issue: 4 Dated: August 2002 Pages: 524-545
Mary Thierry Texeira
Date Published
August 2002
22 pages
Interview data obtained from 65 African-American women who were active and former law enforcement officers provided a comprehensive examination of how African-American women in one police agency experienced race-based sexual harassment.
The sample included 50 active-duty and 15 retired African-American policewomen. At the request of the women, their identities and the identity of the law enforcement agency (called "The Agency" in this report) are not provided in this report. African-American women in The Agency composed only about 2.5 percent of the sworn personnel, compared to 7.5 percent for European-American women and 64.5 percent and 6.3 percent, respectively, for European-American and African-American men. The experiences of the women in this study spanned a period from 1954, when the oldest woman in the sample was hired, to the present. Their ages ranged from 22 to 70. Their ranks ranged from commander (the third-highest classification in the chain of command in The Agency) to deputy sheriff, the lowest rank next to trainee. In the interviews with the women, the interviewer presented the legal definition of sexual harassment (unwanted or unwelcome sexually explicit words, touch, or intimidation based on a perceived power difference and on which one's employment depends). If a woman stated that she had experienced sexual harassment by this definition, these questions were asked in follow-up: "Who did the harassing?" "Where did the harassment take place?" "Did you report the harassment? Why or why not?" Women were also asked to describe the harassment. The 27 women who perceived they had been sexually harassed reported 114 separate incidents. They reported incidents that were humiliating, demoralizing, and physically harmful. The source of the harassment was men who were their peers and supervisors. In one of the most disturbing incidents, two European-American supervisors colluded to sexually assault a woman under their command. The women perceived that if they wanted to keep their jobs they had to endure the racial and sexual violence of their peers and supervisors. When work performance was affected by such harassment, inefficiency and perceptions of incompetence followed, thus damaging their careers. Future researchers should determine how African-American women's perceptions of sexual harassment differ qualitatively and quantitatively from that of European-American women officers in all criminal justice professions throughout the United States. Policing agencies must take a more proactive approach to the problem of sexual harassment through policies that not only raise the consciousness of all employees but also seriously sanction anyone who harasses while protecting those who break the "blue wall" of silence. 2 tables and 67 references