Policing Women Part 2: When Black women are criminalized

Jul 21, 2020

While much of the national conversation about police reform has focused on race, gender also affects policing. Combine race and gender and you will find that women -- particularly Black women -- are being stopped by police much more often than two decades ago, and those stops are becoming much more troubling.

Buffalo Police Lt. Mike DeLong is recorded calling Ruweyda Ahmed Salim a vulgar slur.
Credit Ruweyda Ahmed Salim / Facebook

"Get away from me. Can you get away from me?" she asks.

"No," he says.

"Why?" she asks.

"Move me," he says.

"I'm not gonna move you, but you can get away from me, though," she says.

"No," he repeats.

This is part of an exchange between Ruweyda Ahmed Salim, a Black woman who was using her cell phone to record police response to a West Side convenience store at the end of June, and Buffalo Police Lt. Mike DeLong, who was among the police who responded.

"You can get away from me," Salim repeats.

"No. I don't," DeLong says, disturbed that she is recording the police working.

"Personal space," Salim says, questioning DeLong as to why 10 officers responded to one suspect. DeLong explains the suspect was on drugs and had attacked his mother.

"You're a disrespectful little f***ing c***, that's what you are," says DeLong.

"Thank you. You're gonna be viral," Salim says.

Her recording did go viral. DeLong was suspended without pay for 30 days as Buffalo Police investigate the incident.

"And you shoved me. And you were pressing...," Salim says.

"I didn't shove you," DeLong says.

"You...You didn't...You weren't pressing on me?" Salim asks.

"No," DeLong says, explaining that he was recording her with his body camera.

"You weren't pressing yourself on me?" Salim asks again.

"No," DeLong says.

"You're a liar," Salim says.

Andrea Ritchie of the Barnard Center for Research on Women in New York City was not surprised by the language DeLong used to describe Salim. A police misconduct attorney, Ritchie said it was "police violence" as much as a physical assault, but it could have had a more dire outcome.

The 2016 death of India Cummings, 27, of Lackawanna in police custody was determined a "homicide" by New York State. The Cummings family is now suing Erie County, the Erie County Sheriff, the Erie County Holding center, its deputies and the Lackawanna Police Department.
Credit The Cummings Family

"Black women are the group most likely to be killed by police when unarmed of any demographic group, including black men," she said.

Ritchie meticulously researched police violence in her book Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color.

Yes, the percentage is small compared to society as a whole, she said, but Black women should not be forgotten in the conversation on police reform. Ritchie said Black people in general have been criminalized, but Black women face unique risks.

"A police officer could be engaging in sexual harassment, sexual violence, physical violence. Could be extorting sex. Could be separating her children from her, calling child welfare on her or simply making her spend a night in jail, which might cause her to lose housing or then immigration might get involved. She might be detained or deported," Ritchie said. "So there's a way in which criminalization in itself is violence that we need to recognize is something that is increasingly affecting women."

Ritchie found much of it happens against women who are not even suspected of a crime.

"Calls for DV (domestic violence) help and calls for help around sexual assault and calls for help around family issues. Calls for help around unmet mental health needs. Atatiana Jefferson, for instance, was a Black woman who was killed by police who were supposed to be checking to make sure that she was safe."

Cariol Horne was a Buffalo Police officer who maintains she was fired from the force in 2007 after trying to stop her white partner from using a chokehold on a Black suspect.
Credit GoFundMe

The Justice Department says, "the percentage of women in law enforcement has remained relatively stagnant for the past few decades" and is currently less than 13% of total officers, with a much smaller percentage in leadership positions and of Black women. Some suggest increasing the number of female officers would help improve the policing of women, but Ritchie disagreed.

"For instance, there's a case of a young Black woman named Charnesia Corley in Texas, who the cop said she rolled through a stop sign. He claimed he smelled marijuana in the car. He called a female officer to the scene and then the female officer -- and this is documented on dashcam video -- forced her to the ground, forced her legs apart and engaged in a manual vaginal cavity search for 10 minutes in full public view," Ritchie said. "So that's a sexual assault."

Ritchie said society has to hold police culture accountable for excessive use of force. She counts herself among those who want to defund the police and redirect the $100 billion spent on policing each year.

"I think we have enough data to show that it's pervasive, it's systemic and that we need to strike systemically," she said. "When we say 'defund the police,' it's not only about reducing the budget of police departments, it's also about reducing the scope of their operation. And then ultimately, really investing in communities to identify what's currently working and then where are the gaps, where we need to imagine new responses that will improve safety for people who are experiencing harm."