Of the many horrific details that have come to light in the ongoing trial of Daniel Holtzclaw, the former Oklahoma City police officer accused of sexually assaulting multiple Black women, perhaps the most common is the allegation that the 28-year-old football star-turned-cop specifically targeted women with histories of substance dependency.
Holtzclaw reportedly preyed upon 12 Black women and one Black teenager in the low-income neighborhoods on the east side of Oklahoma City that served as his patrol area between December 2013 and June 2014, stopping those he suspected of being in possession of drugs and allegedly using this excuse to perform abusive body searches and to threaten or coerce women into sexual acts.
By Tuesday evening, which marked day 16 of the trial and saw the 13 accusers taking the stand against Holtzclaw in the Oklahoma County courthouse, a pattern of alleged abuse had emerged that not only highlighted Black women’s vulnerability to police brutality, but also called into question the ways in which the “war on drugs” has disproportionately impacted Black women.
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Since the trial began on November 2, local journalists have reported that the defense attorney led his cross-examinations by questioning witnesses about being under the influence of, or in possession of, either drugs or alcohol at the time of the assaults.
An investigation by the Associated Press revealed that one woman who claims to have been orally sodomized by Holtzclaw was handcuffed to a hospital bed throughout the incident; she’d been admitted to the medical facility while high on angel dust, or PCP.
Other accusers say the ex-officer fondled, groped, and even penetrated them under the guise of searching them for drugs. Some say he promised to make pending charges go away if they “cooperated with him,” or threatened them with jail time if they didn’t.
The sixth accuser who testified against Holtzclaw on November 18 was the second witness to take the stand while in the custody of Oklahoma County jail on drug-related charges. Shackled at the wrists and ankles, she wore an orange jumpsuit to the courtroom and told the all-white jury she was under the influence of crack cocaine when Holtzclaw allegedly stopped her on the street, drove her home, and raped her in her own bedroom.
Defense Attorney Scott Adams has seized upon some witnesses’ histories of substance dependency to cast doubt on the validity of their testimony, according to reporters with the Oklahoman and TV news channel KOCO 5.
In one incident that generated some buzz on social media, Adams aggressively questioned a witness on the stand until she said, “Before I came here I smoked some marijuana and a blunt stick laced with PCP.” Other accusers interviewed by the AP say that, haunted by the attack, they have since slipped even deeper into the use of substances like cocaine.
These repeated references to drug use by the alleged victims made their way into a BBC article on the case—one of the few pieces of coverage of a trial that has otherwise been completely ignored by the mainstream media—headlined, “Daniel Holtzclaw trial: Standing with ‘imperfect’ accusers.”
“I think this is absolutely disgusting,” Camille Landry, co-convener of an Oklahoma City group called Occupy the Corners, said in response to the BBC article, “to suggest that a victim has to have certain attributes or behaviors in order to not be blamed for an assault against her.”
“Exactly what would a perfect victim be?” she asked. “How does one become perfect in anticipation of being victimized so that one is not blamed for her victimization?”
“It doesn’t matter what they were doing or what their past might have been—these women were sexually assaulted by a man who was charged with serving and protecting them and who instead became a predator against them,” Landry told Rewire.
A close look at the state’s policing of drug-related offenses offers some insight into the context surrounding the threats Holtzclaw is accused of making, and the systems in place that his alleged victims may have been up against at the time of their encounter with the officer.
A 2014 study conducted by the University of Oklahoma’s Department of Sociology found that the state has the highest female incarceration rate in the country, locking up 130 women per 100,000 residents, compared to the national average of 67 per 100,000 residents. About 1,000 women are admitted into Oklahoma’s prison system every year—half of them on drug-related charges.
“The number-one offense is possession,” Susan Sharp, a contributor to the study and author of the book Mean Lives, Mean Laws: Oklahoma’s Women Prisoners, told Rewire in a phone interview.
“Women are low-hanging fruit, they are easy to detect and prosecute, and they seldom have enough information to plea bargain with. The war on drugs is what has driven the high rate of female incarceration in this state.”
She said harsh drug sentencing laws are largely to blame for the fact that 2,400 women are currently locked up in jails and prisons across Oklahoma.
“In Oklahoma you can be charged with drug trafficking for possession of five grams of crack or 20 grams of methamphetamine, both of which are fairly low quantities,” explained Sharp, who is also a professor in the sociology department at the University of Oklahoma. She said policies like the 85 percent rule—originally intended to ensure that violent criminals served 85 percent of their sentence before becoming eligible for parole, but which has now been extended to some drug-related offenses—ensure lengthy sentences for minor crimes.
While all low-income women are caught up this dragnet, she said, Black women tend to be disproportionately impacted, a reality that is not limited to Oklahoma.
Across the United States, the “war on drugs” has torn apart communities of color at a far higher rate than white communities, despite the fact that the government has repeatedly documented similar rates of drug use across racial groups.
A recent fact sheet by the Drug Policy Alliance revealed that 80 percent of the roughly 1.5 million drug-related arrests that happened in 2013 were on simple charges of possession. Black people comprise 30 percent of those arrested for drug law violations and 40 percent of those imprisoned on drug-related charges, even though they account for just 13 percent of the population.
Statistics are even grimmer for women. Between 1980 and 2002 the number of incarcerated women in the United States jumped from 12,300 to 182,271. During that time, incarceration rates for drug offenders ballooned by 888 percent, with women of color disproportionately impacted by the increase; the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) estimates that Black women are three times more likely to be locked up on drug charges than white women.
“In the last 20 years, Black women have comprised the largest group of people presenting in prisons, and much of that is driven by the war on drugs,” asha bandele, an author and senior director at the Drug Policy Alliance, told Rewire.
A 2005 ACLU report titled Caught in the Net, the most recent comprehensive study on the impacts of the drug war on women, revealed that these racially lopsided numbers are not a coincidence. Rather they are the result of “racially targeted law enforcement practices, prosecutorial decisions, and sentencing policies,” which are exacerbated by “selective testing of pregnant women of color for drug use as well as heightened surveillance of poor mothers of color in the context of policing child abuse and neglect.”
Organizations like the African American Policy Forum (AAPF) have documented the ways in which Black women have borne the brunt of drug war policies like mandatory minimum sentencing laws “despite their peripheral involvement in the drug trade.”
A 2015 AAPF report highlighted how interactions with law enforcement personnel who regard Black women’s bodies as “vessels for drugs ingested, swallowed or concealed, or their homes as drug factories” have led to the deaths of Black girls as young as 7 and Black women as old as 92.
Hyper-policing of Black women under the guise of fighting the “war on drugs” also informs how women interact with the criminal justice system, legal experts say.
Citing a recent report on policing and domestic and sexual violence, Sandra Park, a senior attorney at the ACLU, told Rewire, “Survivors with criminal records or substance abuse issues, even if they have experienced sexual assault or domestic violence, tend not to reach out to the police because they know they are vulnerable to arrest.”
She added, “That issue is compounded when you are talking about a police officer like Daniel Holtzclaw, someone who can use stringent drug laws to help perpetuate or commit sexual assault.”
As witnesses in the Holtzclaw trial have testified, this same cycle of fear held true when it came to reporting the police officer’s alleged abuse. Under aggressive questioning by Holtzclaw’s attorney, several women on the stand confessed that they didn’t lodge official complaints because they were afraid to reveal their own drug problems, didn’t think the authorities would believe the word of a Black woman, or simply saw no purpose in reporting a crime to the very same institution that the alleged perpetrator was part of.
“What kind of police do you call on the police?” the 13th and final accuser said on the stand on Tuesday.
Damario Solomon-Simmons, a civil rights lawyer based in Tulsa who traveled to Oklahoma City together with National Bar Association President Benjamin Crump to witness the trial proceedings, said in an interview with NewsOne, “As Black men and lawyers, it was important that we attended the trial to both personally show solidarity.”
Asked about what he witnessed in the courtroom, Solomon-Simmons said, “Frankly, it was a surreal and disappointing scene that was more like 1915 than 2015 … while defendant Holtzclaw was allowed to attend the trial in a suit and free from handcuffs or restraints, some of the alleged victims were actually forced to testify while shackled and ‘dressed out’ in jail orange jumpsuits.”
He also noted his “disappointment” that the women did not appear to have adequate legal representation or the support they needed to navigate the complex proceedings.
In addition to a decades-long crackdown on narcotics, Oklahoma recently tightened regulations regarding the abuse of prescription drugs. The state ranks ninth nationally for overdose deaths involving opioid pain relievers, or OPR, according to the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, while local news reports suggest that the number of overdose deaths as a result of powerful prescription drugs has doubled in the past 12 years.
Last year the senate passed HB 2589, a bill that added morphine, oxycodone, hydrocodone, and benzodiazepine to a list of controlled substances in Oklahoma’s Trafficking in Illegal Drugs Act. Ostensibly aimed at curbing overdose deaths, the legislation imposes a ten-year minimum sentence on individuals found to be in possession of legally stipulated quantities of the four additional substances. However, criminal justice experts fear the law will do nothing except add to the state’s prison population by policing and prosecuting users, rather than, for instance, the drug manufacturers.
The bill could have especially serious ramifications for communities of color, who are disproportionately cut off from health services and are unable to seek treatments or care for dependence on controlled substances. The Oklahoma Policy Institute estimates that over 20 percent of the state’s African-American population is uninsured, suggesting that once again Black people are more likely to feel the most impact of a crackdown on “drugs.”
By putting a health issue into the hands of law enforcement personnel, the state has effectively widened the scope for police officers to conduct searches in the name of public safety. In fact, a common thread running through the testimony against Holtzclaw is the allegation that he instructed women to remove their shirts, “lift up their breasts,” and even pull down their pants so he could search them for drugs, in one case reportedly shining a flashlight between a 57-year-old woman’s legs to satisfy his suspicions.
So far the prosecution has called more than 40 witnesses, while the defense is expected to produce up to 75. With the trial expected to carry on well into the month of December, activists who have mobilized to pack the courtroom, demonstrate outside the courthouse, and otherwise show their support for the accusers say they are ready for the long haul.
“It is traumatic, seeing what has happened to these women in our own backyard and knowing it could have been us,” Landry said. “I am 65 years old and I have been accosted by the police just driving down the street. Other Black women have had similar experiences. Grandmothers, women with gray hair, have shared stories of being thrown up against the hood of their car and patted down with their grandchildren in the backseat, on their way home from church or school or the grocery store.”
“Even people who have had a hard time getting involved in this kind of activism have come out and said, ‘This is the straw that broke the camel’s back. This is where I draw the line. This is where I stand up and say, stop,'” she said.
As of Tuesday evening, all of the alleged victims had taken the stand, including one girl who was just 17 years old at the time of the assault and whose DNA was found on the inside and outside of the former policeman’s trousers, a lead detective testified this week. Holtzclaw has pleaded not guilty to all 36 charges against him, which include battery, stalking, and forcible oral sodomy.