Sharp memory and steel courage bring down Oklahoma cop found guilty of assaulting black women
Jannie Ligons remembered the exact intersection where it happened: Lincoln and 50th.
Oklahoma City Police Officer Daniel Holtzclaw told Ligons he had pulled her over for swerving. But instead of ticketing her, he “fondled me and did certain things to me,” Ligons, 59, said Friday at a televised news conference, deciding to reveal her identity and her ordeal in June 2014 to the public.
“I was out there alone and helpless and didn’t know what to do,” said Ligons, surrounded by family and supporters, recalling that she was afraid to even look up at Holtzclaw’s nameplate.
“In my mind, I thought he was going to shoot me, to kill me … I didn’t know what to do, I was so afraid … I kept begging him, ‘Sir, don’t make me do this, please don’t make me do this, sir.’”
But her courage returned: Of the 13 black women who would later testify they’d been sexually assaulted by Holtzclaw, Ligons was the first to report the officer to the authorities.
Her decision triggered an investigation that resulted in Holtzclaw’s conviction Thursday on 18 counts of rape and sexual battery of women in the predominantly low-income community that Holtzclaw, 29, had been tasked with protecting.
“He just picked the wrong lady to stop that night,” Ligons said, drawing a “Yes!” and applause from her supporters.
Holtzclaw, who is half white and half Japanese, now faces up to 263 years in prison on charges that include four convictions of first-degree rape.
The all-white Oklahoma County jury also acquitted Holtzclaw on 18 counts, but the officer sobbed as the 18 guilty verdicts were announced, at one point placing his face down on the courtroom table as if in disbelief.
Prosecutors said he’d systematically targeted the vulnerable: black women living on the margins of public life, some of them teenagers, some of them with criminal records.
His victims believed resisting him could lead to criminal punishment or even deadly violence. And they knew speaking out would mean pitting their word against the word of a police officer, with no guarantee they’d be heard, much less believed.
“It was very evident when you look at his victims, it wasn’t coincidence who he chose to violate,” civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump told reporters Friday. “It was methodical. It was deliberate.”
Crump also criticized local and national media for not giving greater coverage to a disturbing case that also had much broader implications.
“This is not just happening in Oklahoma City,” Crump said.
A yearlong investigation by the Associated Press published in November found 1,000 officers across the nation who had lost their badges over a six-year period for sexual misconduct that included rape, sodomy, possession of child porn and propositioning citizens.
That number, the AP concluded, was “unquestionably an undercount” of the real total of officers punished for sexual misconduct.
Recurring allegations of rape by police officers nationwide prompted the International Assn. of Chiefs of Police in 2011 to publish a guide for how to handle such cases.
“Reported and investigated cases of sexual misconduct by officers appear all too frequently in the news,” the guide said, concluding that sexual abuse by law enforcement “can and does occur in every section of the country.”
“Regardless of the rate of occurrence, the problem is real,” the guide said.
“It’s happening probably in every law enforcement agency across the country,” Chief Bernadette DiPino of the Sarasota Police Department in Florida, who helped study the problem for the police chiefs group, told the AP. “It’s so underreported, and people are scared that if they call and complain about a police officer, they think every other police officer is going to be then out to get them.”
St. Louis University law professor Roger L. Goldman, who studies police licensing, told the Los Angeles Times that California is one of six U.S. states that generally doesn’t have the power to decertify officers for any reason involving on-duty misconduct, though California can decertify an officer who commits fraud or if “there was a mistake in getting into the police academy.”
In Oklahoma City, Shardayreon “Sharday” Hill, 24, appeared with her mother and father as she told reporters that Holtzclaw sexually assaulted her in a hospital room where she’d been taken after he arrested her in December 2013. She said she was handcuffed to her hospital bed.
“In the room with the police, not expecting to be violated the way I did, the way I was done, I was speechless, I was scared,” Hill said, growing emotional. “When everything was going down, I felt — I mean, I was scared. I didn’t know what to do. I felt like I was in survival mode, so I had to do what he was making me do.”
Hill fell silent, and Crump stepped in. “Thank you,” he said softly.
Tears streaked down the face of a woman standing behind the pair.
Hill had decided to come forward after seeing a news story on Facebook about allegations a woman had made against Holtzclaw — Ligons’ allegations.
Ligons explained why she mustered the courage to come forward: “I didn’t want to see this happen to no one else.”
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