** Content warning: This page contains mentions of sexual assault.
Sexual assault is widespread in the United States, and millions of survivors live with resulting trauma. When survivors come forward, that trauma is often made worse by gender bias in the way institutions, including police, respond. When police disbelieve, shame, and punish sexual assault survivors for coming forward, it not only contributes to stigma and trauma around sexual assault – it also violates the Constitution’s protections against discrimination on the basis of sex.
In 2017, Nicole Chase came forward to say that she was sexually assaulted by Calvin Nodine, the owner of Nodine’s Smokehouse, the restaurant where she worked. The next day, Ms. Chase reported the assault to the Canton Police Department to try to protect herself from her assailant, someone in a position of power and authority in her workplace.
Instead of investigating, though, Canton police brought criminal charges against her.
Instead of treating Chase like a victim of sexual assault, police appear to have subjected her to further shame, humiliation, and retaliation. When Chase came forward, officer Adam Gompper interviewed her in the main lobby of the police station in front of her mother. When Chase, in a later interview, told police the full details of the assault and disclosed that she was suicidal, court documents say that Canton police employee John Colangelo responded by telling her it was a crime to make a false statement.
Instead of investigating, such as preserving evidence, interviewing additional witnesses, and photographing and securing the crime scene, court documents also say that Canton police responded to Chase with derision while buddying up to Nodine. Colangelo interviewed Nodine in a private room at the police station. During that interview, Colangelo allegedly asked for an invitation to play golf at Nodine’s attorney’s country club, described Nodine’s offensive sexual comments as “flirtation,” bragged about how he had brought false statement charges against a woman reporting sexual assault, and suggested that he could do the same here. Colangelo even promised that he would not tell Nodine’s wife and reassured Nodine, “guys do what guys do, trust me.”
Canton police closed their investigation into the assault and retaliated against Chase by arresting her and charging her with allegedly making a false statement, charges that were later abandoned by prosecutors.
Survivors, especially BIPOC and LGBTQ survivors, already face serious barriers to coming forward about sexual assault, including when reporting it to law enforcement. In addition, power disparities between a survivor and their assailant also create barriers to survivors coming forward. In the restaurant industry in which Chase worked, around 86 percent of women report unwanted sexual attention from management. Women with lower minimum wages and lower status are particularly vulnerable to harassment, given the frequent consequences of reporting such as loss of income or employment, and Chase expressed that fear herself several times.
At the same time, false complaints of sexual assault are extremely rare. Yet police often assume that survivors are lying and wrongly dismiss their reports, creating even more barriers to survivors reporting assault and creating additional harm.
In 2018, Chase sued the Town of Canton, Gompper, Colangelo, Nodine, and Nodine’s Smokehouse. In that lawsuit, the Town tried to argue that its police employees could not be held accountable because of qualified immunity, and the court rejected that argument, saying that Gompper and Colangelo’s behavior was so unreasonable and biased that it couldn’t even be shielded by qualified immunity. Now, the Town and its employees are appealing the court’s decision.
Together, the National Women’s Law Center, ACLU, ACLU of Connecticut, and 27 other women’s rights and gender justice organizations from across the country have joined a friend of the court brief siding with Chase. In it, we argue that the court must affirm that police who rely on gender bias in sexual assault cases can’t hide behind the cover of qualified immunity. When police respond to sexual assault survivors with gender bias, it harms survivors further, and it violates survivors’ constitutional rights to equal protection under the law.