Trigger Warning for descriptions of sexual violence and rape apologism.
Late last week, I wrote about how the tendency for police forces to engage in rape apologism or even sexual violence is not just an issue of individual officers engaging in bad behavior, but of a system that encourages police rape apologism and sexual violence and enforces few consequences for it. I was sad, this morning, to find a news story out of Australia that perfectly illustrates that point.
In 2004, rape allegations were made against St Kilda football players Stephen Milne and Leigh Montagna (pictured above). The full details of the allegations against Milne are available here — they are graphic, and they are definitely potentially triggering. (The charges that were being considered against Montagna are less clear.) Essentially, what Milne was accused of was attempted rape, regardless of any other circumstances — the victim allegedly said no to intercourse, and Milne allegedly kept attempting penetration regardless. The allegations go further, however, to claim that Milne was guilty of digital rape through deception, in addition to attempted rape. The alleged victim claims that in the dark room, he pretended to be Montagna, with whom the alleged victim had had previous sexual relations and would have consented to some sexual contact, in order to gain her sexual compliance.
At the time, charges were dropped, supposedly for lack of evidence. Now, a former detective on the case has come forward to say that lack of evidence against Milne was not the issue, but intimidation, harassment, and suppression of evidence were.
Former Sen-Det Scott Gladman, who led the investigation into the alleged rape, told Nine News that he received several threats from his colleagues over the case.
He also said that interview tapes were stolen and the alleged victim’s statement was leaked to the club during the probe.
The investigation was launched when a woman told police she was raped by Milne at the home of teammate Leigh Montagna.
The probe lasted six weeks, before the then-Director of Public Prosecutions, Paul Coughlan QC, said it was impossible to convict Milne and dropped the case.
Mr Gladman told Nine News that he received several threatening calls from his colleagues while he ran the investigation.
“You better do the right thing. You better make sure that this is done properly,” one of the callers allegedly said.
Mr Gladman said that he “couldn’t guarantee the integrity of the security of the office”, and was forced to take evidence home with him to protect it.
“I couldn’t understand how something like that could become so big, and allowed to become so out of control,” he said.
Gladman said that on one occasion he received a telephone call from an officer who supported St Kilda demanding he stop investigating.
“(He said) `This didn’t happen, it didn’t happen the way she said it happened. She’s just one of these footy sluts that runs around looking for footballers to f…’ (were) the words,” Gladman told the Nine Network.
“‘You better make this go away, you better do the right thing, you better make sure that this is done properly, this is just bullshit’, and it was hung up.”
Gladman said that on another occasion, he was confronted in the street by an unknown officer with promises “he’d be looked after if the matter went away and threats if it didn’t”.
Now, we certainly can talk about this as an issue of personal responsibility. We can blame those officers who made the threats. And Former Detective Gladman could even be criticized for caving into pressure at the time. But with regard to the latter, I also think that life is not like a movie, and most of us are not heroes who are willing or even able to risk everything in order to do the right thing. And more importantly, I think that when we are not personally in a situation where our safety is being threatened, it’s in incredibly poor taste to pass judgment on the responses of those who are being threatened. We may all make different choices in the circumstances, but until we’re actually there, we don’t know what exactly the circumstances are, and can’t condemn what other people feel they have to do in order to remain safe.
Gladman may well bear some personal responsibility here (I honestly don’t know). And the officers who engaged in intimidation most definitely do. But regardless of what individual reprehensible actions were taken, the fact is that it was ultimately a system of police corruption and rape apologism that created an atmosphere of intimidation. The fact that police officers, quite possibly superiors, felt comfortable making threats against Gladman is a systemic problem. The fact that Gladman apparently felt there was no safe place to report those threats is a systemic problem. The fact that evidence was stolen and leaked and next to nothing was done about it is a systemic problem. And the fact that anyone felt comfortable suppressing a rape case specifically through apologism, denialism, and misogyny is also a systemic problem.
And when I refer to these problems as systemic, I’m not only referring to law enforcement systems, but also to broader social systems. In a lot of ways, police behavior is simply reflective of social values. Police have their own independent power — lots of it — but that power is actively supported by a culture made up mostly of people who don’t personally benefit from that power, but also don’t directly suffer from it. It would be difficult for police to maintain their power and “right” to commit abuse of power, in other words, if most citizens were not content or even enthusiastic and eager to let them.
Cops don’t have a long history in the U.S. of brutality against black people because cops specifically think that black people deserve violence — the history exists because of wider social messages that say the bodies, safety, and rights of black people are worth less than those of everyone else and are deserving of violent subjugation. Police officers don’t tend to use excessive force in the U.S. just because excessive force is something that police officers believe in — they use excessive force because whenever they do, the public is ready to back them up, reminding victims that they should have been more deferential and less likely to have ever brought police attention their way, no matter what the circumstances. And police don’t tend to engage in rape apologism only because they personally hate rape victims or think that rape victims had it coming — they engage in rape apologism because the rest of society does, too, and thinks that rape apologism is acceptable or even admirable.
And this bears out particularly in this case, as there is a long history of Australian footballers being accused of rape and other sexual assaults, only to be supported by their teams, coaches, and fans. In the U.S., we’ve seen this dynamic play out whenever a popular athlete has been accused of sexual violence — for example, years ago with Kobe Bryant, and more recently with Ben Roethlisberger. Women who accuse sports stars of rape are rarely treated well or even decently by the public and media, and this holds true across many countries. In Australia, it’s footballers specifically who receive the most protection, from everyone from friends to law enforcement. Footballers, apparently, like Stephen Milne.
Again, police abuse of power does not exist in a vacuum, and is not just an issue of “bad cops” bringing the rest of the force down. As this case shows, even the “good cops” who want to do the job properly are still sometimes held back rather deliberately by systemic forces. And when police who are corrupt, abusive, and/or violent engage in atrocious acts, they’re not acting alone — they’re acting with the support of multiple oppressive systems that say what they’re doing is acceptable, and no one will feel safe trying to stop them, even if they want to.