Feb 1 2014

Calling Rape by Its Right Name

In L.A. Times, suspects with a badge get a pass

In January 2013, the Los Angeles Times (1/4/13) published an explosive story about alleged criminality in the L.A. Police Department. Two veteran officers, Luis Valenzuela and James Nichols, were under investigation for using the threat of jail to force at least four different women they had previously arrested to have sex with them.

Such crimes are legally known as “rape.” But the Times avoided using that term, inexplicably employing every other word and phrase imaginable—including “sex crimes,” “sexual favors” and “forced sex”—to describe what the officers were accused of.

Worse still, the Times unquestioningly regurgitated police excuses for why it took the department three years to take action on the accusations against Valenzuela and Nichols.

The first accuser came forward in 2010, but nothing was done because “the detective assigned to the case was unable to locate her,” a claim that went unchallenged by the paper. When a second accuser came forward the following year, rather than immediately investigate, the LAPD separated and reassigned the accused.

Meanwhile, accuser No. 2’s claims of abuse were dismissed as irrational by the LAPD, which the Times dutifully echoed: “Police noted that the [second victim] displayed erratic behavior while recounting the events. Later, she made violent threats while in custody and was transported to a hospital.” Apparently women must remain calm and collected when recounting trauma if they are to be believed.

Bob Chamberlin/ Los Angeles Times
In January 2014, the LAPD settled a lawsuit with one of the women who accused two LAPD officers of raping her – and once again the L.A. Times (1/15/14) failed to use the word “rape” to describe what the officers were accused of.

Months later, a follow-up piece (11/5/13) managed to sanitize the alleged rapes even further. According to the Times, the LAPD had determined that the officers “pressured women to engage in sex acts with them” and “sought sexual favors in exchange for leniency.” This is a strange use of the word “exchange,” which suggests a fair trade between two consenting individuals rather than an act of violence.

Perhaps the Times felt that because accusers three and four were sex workers they were not capable of being raped, a dangerously common belief that dehumanizes sex workers and makes them prime targets for sexual predators.

Or maybe the Times is just confused about what exactly constitutes rape in the state of California. Luckily, the law is easy to look up. Here is how California Penal Code (Section 261(a)(7)) defines “rape” as it might apply to this case:

Where the act is accomplished against the victim’s will by threatening to use the authority of a public official to incarcerate, arrest or deport the victim or another, and the victim has a reasonable belief that the perpetrator is a public official. As used in this paragraph, “public official” means a person employed by a governmental agency who has the authority, as part of that position, to incarcerate, arrest or deport another.

Unfortunately, this was not an isolated incident; failing to call rape by its proper name when those accused of it are police officers appears to be a pattern for the L.A. Times:

• In September, the Times (9/6/13) reported on the indictment of a San Bernardino police officer charged with raping two sex workers. Instead of calling it “rape,” the paper went with “sex charges,” “sexual assault” and “forcing two prostitutes to have sex with him.”

• In another case, the behavior of a San Diego police officer convicted of sexually abusing at least seven women during traffic stops was described by the Times (LATimes.com, 9/27/13) as “demanding sexual favors.”

• Not long after that, the Times (LATimes.com, 11/22/13) described a Metropolitan Hospital police officer who committed statutory rape as “engaging in a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old girl.”

It’s not as though the Times is incapable using the word “rape”; it does so regularly for perpetrators without a badge (e.g., LA Times.com, 10/28/13, 11/20/13, 11/26/13).

In California, rape is punishable by three to six years in state prison (California Penal Code 264(a)), though it has yet to be seen whether these officers will ever be charged. Meanwhile, the fourth rape accuser from the first story (1/3/13) is currently serving over seven years in prison “for possession of cocaine with intent to sell and identity theft,” despite what the Times calls “the officers’ promises” to keep her out of jail in “exchange” for sex. Last I checked, “promises” and “threats,” like “sex” and “rape,” have very different meanings.

With its evasive language, the Times is engaging in a dangerous form of rape culture that excuses sexual violence committed by those in uniform. As a major media outlet in a country where just four of every 10 rapes are ever even reported to police (Rape Abuse and Incest National Network), the paper has a responsibility to name the crime.

Extra! February 2014