In January, a group of seven state representatives introduced a bill to ban custodial sexual assault, which is sexual conduct between “peace officers” and people who are in their custody or who are detained. The bill was held for further study Feb. 10, with advocates hoping it will be passed within the year.
Peace officers include “correctional officers, park rangers, fire marshals, anyone with the authority to put you in a cage or threaten you,” according to Bella Robinson, executive director of COYOTE RI, a Rhode Island organization advocating for policies that protect sex workers.
A similar bill with lead sponsor State Senator Samuel Bell, a Democrat from Providence, has been introduced and is still working through the R.I. Senate, where it has been assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Bell told The Herald that Rhode Island has “struggled with the most egregious cases of police conduct” and this bill is an opportunity to codify the fact that “when there are extreme power differentials, you can’t give meaningful consent.”
Multiple state legislatures, including Arizona in 2015 and Alaska in 2013, have passed similar legislation banning custodial sexual assault in recent years, according to BuzzFeed News. State Representative Brianna Henries, a Democrat representing East Providence who sponsored the House bill, said she was in disbelief after discovering a law banning custodial sexual assault did not exist in Rhode Island before being elected into her current position. She described the bill as a way to ensure that “no one is coerced after running a red light,” and as a way to “create systems that lift people up, protect them and hold people accountable.”
“Why wouldn’t we want to get ahead of this and be a leader in making sure there are protections before people become victims?” she said.
The bill would only be invoked if sexual assault in the first two degrees cannot be applied. In Rhode Island, convictions of first- and second-degree sexual assault, which are are defined by level of sexual contact, yield minimum imprisonment of 10 and three years, respectively.
Harrison Tuttle, the executive director of Black Lives Matter Rhode Island Political Action Committee, said that “When dealing with any interactions between people of color and the police, there are other forms of police brutality besides killing and shooting that can cause emotional and physical trauma.” When it comes to sexual assault, women of color — and particularly Black women — are among those who are most affected, Tuttle said.
Megan Smith, an outreach worker from House of Hope, a local organization seeking to aid people who are housing insecure and unhoused, said that current processes for reporting custodial sexual assault do not adequately protect those affected.
“Survival is a full-time job and people don’t have time to pursue a bureaucratic process that they have every reason to believe isn’t actually going to serve them anyway,” Smith said. “Through talking to unhoused or housing insecure people through outreach, … (we know that custodial sexual assault) is a pattern of behaviour that’s shockingly common.”
According to Robinson, custodial sexual assault most affects unhoused people, sex workers and those who are “easiest to harass (and) … the easiest to discredit.” Robinson said that not specifically outlawing custodial sexual assault is effectively “locking marginalized people out of equal protection under the law.”
Robinson emphasized this point during her testimony in a hearing for the House bill, saying that the written testimony provided by House of Hope and COYOTE RI shows that Providence police officers are “taking street-based sex workers behind abandoned buildings” and coercing them into sexual acts with the threat of jail.
Henries emphasized that Steve Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island American Civil Liberties Union, Robinson and Bell all helped draft the legislation. While Henries is the one to “champion this bill,” she said that all involved wanted to “give homage to organizations that put blood, sweat and tears into the original bill.”
Brown told The Herald that he hopes the bill will prevent any peace officers who have committed custodial sexual assault from escaping justice.
In order to increase public support for the bill, Tuttle said BLM RI PAC “put out social media graphics, (released) an op-ed three days before testimony hearing and work(ed) with Henries to have action-network sign-ups” for people to testify on behalf of the bill.
But the bill was held for further study in the judiciary committee, with support from Chair of the Committee Robert Craven on the basis that the bill required more specificity in its language.
In an interview with The Herald, Craven emphasized that unambiguous language is essential in bills because “difference of opinion (about legal terms) is great in a debate but terrible in a courtroom,” alluding to his experience as a prosecutor.
Having personally seen how ambiguity has prevented bills from being effectively used in the courtroom, Craven said he wants to ensure that the bill’s language is specific enough to be applied as often as is necessary. Ultimately, Craven said the bill is “a great piece of legislation, and we are going to pass it.”
Bell said that while passing this bill will be “an uphill climb,” it would especially “protect people from vulnerable populations.” He hopes it will work to change conversations around the state’s policies on sexual violence.
Smith said she hopes the bill will go beyond addressing the acts committed by individual officers to target a culture that tolerates coercion.
Brown and Robinson both hope the next step for protecting sex workers, among other marginalized groups, will be decriminalizing sex work, and both said they are drafting a bill that will do exactly that.
Henries is hopeful that the bill will be passed, and said that it will be “a small catalyst which will hopefully lead to a revised system, hopefully an abolished system and a (new) better system for humanity.”