Seven years ago, I received the kind of phone call that all young women know to be ready for, but dread nonetheless. It was a girlfriend, calling from her apartment, her voice shaky and thin. It took her a few minutes to say it, and when she finally did, it was in a whisper, but she eventually told me that the previous night a police officer had been inside her apartment, and that while he was there, he had raped her.
That call, and the days that followed, came back to me vividly over the last nine weeks, as I followed the trial of Kenneth Moreno and Franklin Mata, two police officers on trial for the rape of a 29-year-old fashion executive. As the defense unfolded—it included Moreno admitting to having "cuddled" with his accuser, faking a 911 call, and later reassuring the young woman that he had used a condom—I felt little doubt that this time, justice would be served. This case, surely, would send the message that power doesn't mean impunity. Instead, I sat dumbfounded—enraged, even—as I learned on Thursday that both officers had been acquitted.
The day I got the call from my friend, we gathered at the hospital where she had gone for a rape kit, and sat in similarly stunned silence. We were in our early 20s, and accustomed to seeing police officers as protectors, not threats. Like the woman at the center of this recent case, our friend had spent the evening at a nightclub, and had had way too much to drink. She was on her way home, alone, when the patrol car pulled up and two officers offered her a ride. It would, of course, be safer to ride with them than travel by herself late at night, wouldn't it?
Days later, my friend learned from her doorman that when the car arrived at her building, one of the officers walked her inside. When they reached the elevator, she resisted to the point that the doorman got worried and tried to step in, but the officer said he was there on police business, and insisted that he had to escort her to her door to “make sure she was safe.” With some encouragement, my friend reported the incident and an Internal Affairs investigation was launched. Because the doorman had written down the number of the patrol car, the officer in question was easily identified. When the investigating sergeant visited the nightclub, the manager told him that he knew the officers—they showed up regularly. They were, the manager said, “on skirt patrol.” Their official beat would have taken them nowhere near that neighborhood.
The investigation that followed moved at a glacial pace, despite ample evidence—including security videos, and her doorman’s testimony that she had resisted the officer’s coming up to her apartment. We understood when our friend declined to press on. We've all seen what happens in cases like this—accusers' lives and sexual histories are made public and dissected; even their underpants become part of the public record. Continuing on would have meant remaining immersed in a traumatic experience that she was ready to put behind her.
Their mandate is to serve and protect. That they would abuse their authority, and instead assault and deceive, seems beyond credibility.
Almost any case having to do with sexual assault ultimately boils down to “he said, she said.” They are, consequently, very difficult to prove. When “he” is one of “New York’s Finest”—who is also, not incidentally, being investigated not by an outside body but by a fellow officer—and “she” is a young woman who admittedly had too much to drink on the night in question, it becomes almost impossible.
But the evidence against Montero and Mata seemed like a slam-dunk. And I wasn’t the only one shocked by their acquittal. Heather Millstone, the owner of the bar beneath the accuser’s apartment, told the Times she was “ heartbroken.” Even one of the jurors, Melinda Hernandez, told the New York Daily News, that the deliberations had been “ emotionally trying.” "I just want to be with my family right now,” she said the day the verdict was announced. “We are all emotionally upset about the thing."
In cases like these, prosecutors are forced to walk a very fine line: they have to prove that accusers are too drunk to consent, but not so drunk that they’re unable to remember. It also seems that the burden of proof when it comes to prosecuting police officers is even higher than it would be for civilians. Their mandate, after all, is to serve and protect. That they would abuse their authority, and instead assault and deceive, seems beyond credibility.
When police officers are assaulted or killed, their assailants are charged with more than they would be if they had attacked a civilian—even if they had no idea their victim was a cop. The same basic principle should apply when officers are the ones on trial. Rather than being protected by the blue code of silence, or presumed innocent more definitively than any other member of the public, they should be held to a higher standard.
Kenneth Moreno was called to his accuser’s apartment building by a cabdriver who said she was too drunk to get inside on her own. He and his partner responded to the call and helped her in. Then, by their own admission, the two men returned to the apartment three separate times, and went to great lengths to cover their tracks. Moreno admitted on the stand that he had cuddled with his accuser, while she was wearing little more than a bright pink bra.
There is no reason a police officer should enter an intoxicated woman’s apartment. If she’s so intoxicated that the officer thinks he needs to help her to bed, she’s intoxicated enough that the officer should call an ambulance instead. But more importantly: a man who spoons in bed with a virtual stranger—a woman who a short while earlier had been so intoxicated that her driver felt compelled to call 911 is—at the very least, incredibly creepy. The fact that in this case the person in question was wearing a badge and carrying a gun shouldn’t absolve him of guilt. If anything, it should make him even guiltier.
But what really scares me about these officers’ acquittal is the message that it sends, not only to policemen, but also to victims. After his acquittal was announced, Officer Moreno, who, the police commissioner announced, would be fired from the force, stood outside the courthouse and told the assembled crowd to “ be very, very careful.” On that point, we agree. We should all be careful, all the time. Today, my friend has to be more careful than anyone. Even seven years later, she still says she would never call the cops for help. It raises a terrifying question: if we can’t feel safe with the people we pay to protect us, are we ever safe at all?
Jesse Ellison is a writer and editor for Newsweek, covering society, culture, business, and health. She also co-authors the Equality Myth and can be found on Tumblr.