Ashley Steele says she was the designated driver on April 29, 2010, when San Diego Police Officer Anthony Arevalos pulled her over. She says she passed both a Breathalyzer and field sobriety test, but that Arevalos decided to search her for "contraband," touching her breasts and buttocks and placing his hand "on top of her vagina." He then handcuffed her and took her to a police station, where she said she needed to use the bathroom. She alleges that he then took her to the bathroom himself, shut the door, and watched her urinate. Then he allegedly drove her to another station for booking, all the while asking if her breasts were real and if she had a boyfriend.
Steele wasn't the only one. Last year Arevalos was sentenced to almost nine years in prison for multiple counts of sexual assault and battery — most of which took place at DUI stops. Now some of Arevalos's accusers say the San Diego Police Department knew about his behavior the whole time — and one of their attorneys says this pattern is repeating itself across the U.S. The Arevalos case, says attorney Mary Prevost, who represents another of his accusers, identified only as Jane Roe, is "a microcosm of what's out there in everybody's neighborhood." Advances in technology, like camera phones and webcams, are leading to a growing awareness that "a lot has been swept under the rug for a long time," she says.
She may be right. Last year, two Chicago police officers were charged with sexual assault for having sex with a 22-year-old woman in their police car and at her home — she said she was too afraid to say no. In February, Pittsburgh police officer Adam Skweres was arrested for allegedly offering to fix women's legal problems in return for sexual favors. A Santa Fe police officer with a history of stalking allegations was recently caught on camera masturbating in his police car. And earlier this month, Philadelphia police officer Anthony Dattilo was charged with sexually assaulting a 14-year-old girl in a motel room — she had texted family members that she was being held against her will, and when police arrived at the hotel, Dattilo was allegedly naked and fondling her. In many cases of police misconduct, departments have been slow to respond to citizens' complaints.
In her suit, Steele alleges that by the time she came into contact with Arevalos, the San Diego Police Department had already gotten complaints about him, but had neglected to follow up. In response to these allegations, city attorney's office communications director Gina Coburn claims that there had been one reported incident before Steele's. "Internal Affairs investigated that prior alleged incident and found insufficient evidence, but referred the matter anyway to the District Attorney’s office, which reviewed the evidence and declined to prosecute," she says. But Steele's suit says there were two reports beforehand, and that Arevalos also frequently bragged to other officers about pulling over attractive women.
Steele's lawyer Sanford Passman says the city "very well knew" what Arevalos was up to — and he predicts the city of San Diego would do everything they could to avoid paying damages. "They will dig their heels in," he says.
They appear to be doing just that. The city has filed several motions in recent weeks in the case of Jane Roe, who says Arevalos "grabbed her genitals." One, seeking the release of Roe's real name, was just denied by a judge. Prevost claims the real goal of the motion was "to out her name to the press and to be abusive." Now attorneys for the city have filed another motion, to strike previous claims of sexual misconduct by other SDPD officers from the suit. Prevost believes this motion will fail because those claims are "relevant to a citywide policy" of ignoring or actively abetting police misconduct. She says this policy is still very much in effect — she cites another suit, filed in April by former Mesa, Arizona police officer Javier Cota, who says he was falsely arrested in June 2011 when he tried to intervene with two SDPD officers (neither of whom was Arevalos) who were allegedly harassing women.
But officers who initially ignore complaints against their own appear to be a common feature of police harassment cases. One woman who accused Pittsburgh officer Adam Skweres of offering to make her ticket go away in return for sexual favors says she reported the incident immediately to Pittsburgh's Office of Municipal Investigations, but after they gave her a polygraph test they said was "inconclusive," she never heard from them again. Mike Eiskant, the Santa Fe officer caught masturbating in his car, was the subject of a prior sexual harassment claim by a fellow officer — her superior at the time asked if she was filing her claim "only because of all the rumors against Mike Eiskant stalking women," and then offered only mediation, not an investigation. And it appears that Arevalos was only punished for his crimes because another officer was finally willing to act on a complaint about him — specifically, that he'd taken a woman's underwear as a trade for not arresting her.
Despite apathy in San Diego, Prevost says the suits against the SDPD are worth everyone's attention. Her advice? "People need to take a stand and make sure they're protected by the police, not victimized by them," she says. "And if you're a woman, always carry pepper spray."