I’m a few days late on this (as I seem to be on everything, lately), but this is also one of those stories that doesn’t seem to get any less outrageous with time. In fact the original story is fifteen months old. A woman is suing an Ohio sheriff’s department over, well, there aren’t really any words:
Hope Steffey’s night started with a call to police for help. It ended with her face down, naked, and sobbing on a jail cell floor. Now, the sheriff’s deputies from Stark County, Ohio who allegedly used excessive force during a strip search 15 months ago face a federal lawsuit, and recently released video won’t help their case.
Steffey’s ordeal with the Stark County sheriff’s deputies began after her cousin called 9-1-1 claiming Steffey had been assaulted by another one of their cousins. When a Stark County police officer arrived, he asked to see Steffey’s driver’s license. But instead of handing over her own ID, she mistakenly turned over her dead sister’s license, which she contends she keeps in her wallet as a memento. That’s when the situation became complicated.
“Hope was not treated as a victim,” her lawyer told WKYC News. “The officer said to her ‘shut up about your dead sister.'”
Eventually, Steffey was arrested and taken to the Stark County Jail, charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. But once in custody, her attorney says seven jail workers, male and female, forcibly removed Steffey of all her clothes, including her undergarments, while she lay face down in handcuffs. Local news footage shows Steffey wailing, asking “What are you doing?!?”
“And you have to ask yourself, what was the purpose of the strip search?” said Steffey’s lawyer. “What was the necessity of it? This was a disorderly conduct claim.”
The lawsuit says that Steffey remained in the cell for six hours and wrapped herself in toilet paper to stay warm. During that time, she was not allowed to use a phone or seek medical assistance for injuries she accrued that night, including a cracked tooth, bulging disc, and bruises.
I only watched at tiny portion of the video, because I find this story to be terrifying and depressing enough without the visual reinforcement. Here is what the sheriff has to say about the lawsuit:
Although the sheriff’s policy requires officers conducting any strip search to be of the same sex, the sheriff contends that the tactic used on Steffey was not actually a strip search. He also questions the validiy [sic] of the events leading up to Steffey’s arrest.
I absolutely agree with him on one point: this was not a strip search. It was sexual assault, plain and simple. There is absolutely no other way to describe holding a woman down on the floor and forcibly tearing off her clothes. This point is further made in a post over at Galling Galla, which you should go read. I have to say that I’m incredibly insulted and upset that it is still being referred to as a “strip search” by everyone, including the victim’s lawyer. Strip searches, though regularly humiliating and dehumanizing, do at least by definition take place for security reasons, peaceably and under a strict set of rules. None of that applies to this situation. This situation is one of extreme power abuse, encouraged by an apparent sense of invincibility. These officers arrested a victim for utterly no reason, ignored her report of violence and refused to grant her medical treatment. Then, seemingly deciding that a woman who has already been physically assaulted is fair game for additional violence, they sexually assaulted her on camera while poorly attempting to pass it off as a routine procedure. To compound the humiliation and violence, they locked her naked in a cell for hours with no indication of when she would be released or even granted clothing.
That women took part in this attack shows yet again that men are not exceedingly more likely to be born as violent, misogynistic and irredeemable human beings, but that authoritarian and violent patriarchal institutions — shockingly enough — promote violence against those perceived as vulnerable. That means, to create a short list, women, people of color, LGBT individuals, sex workers and the poor (and of course these groups aren’t mutually exclusive).
Here’s one of the most terrifying things. Based on video, it looks like Steffey is a white woman. Since she has a husband, we can also assume that she is a straight woman (or bi woman who can “pass” as straight if she so wishes). And based on the lawsuit, she must be a straight white woman who can afford some sort of lawyer, or has connections to those who can, or connections to a lawyer willing to do pro bono work. This means that in the specter of those likely to be taken into police custody, Steffey is going to be pretty high up among the relatively privileged. When police pick a prisoner to assault, the white married woman isn’t likely to be a first target, as she’s more likely to be perceived as capable of causing later repercussions. We know perfectly well that violence against straight white women is routinely ignored, but we also know that it’s less commonly ignored than that against women of color, queer women, disabled women, etc. Hell, police routinely murder black women holding their babies and face no guarantee of consequences for their actions.
And that leaves us (or at least me) with a question: how many other women have been subjected to this kind of sexual assault at the hands of this same sheriff’s department? How long did it take for them to cross a line and attack a woman who both wanted to and was able to get a lawyer? And are we really to believe that this attack — the one they filmed — is as bad as it gets?