Two members of the Sex Workers and Allies Network doing harm reduction outreach work. Global Health Justice Partnership

A New Haven Register piece on June 7 framed up an important problem faced by one of Connecticut’s police accountability processes: the decertification process through the Police Officer Standards and Training Council or POST has an overwhelming backlog following the 2020 police accountability reforms set in motion by movements responding to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many others.

But there is another problem with POST as an accountability mechanism: despite the obvious and ongoing problem of police sexual misconduct in Connecticut, police sexual abuse does not currently form an independent ground for decertification.

As a group, the Global Health Justice Partnership of Yale’s Public Health and Law Schools (GHJP) and the Sex Workers and Allies Network (SWAN) have worked for more than six years to monitor the paths of justice —or rather, lack of justice— when New Haven police officers have been accused and in some cases fired, because of coercing sex from persons using their authority.  

Often the targeted women are those working on the street and previously arrested under CT prostitution laws. The failure of the decertification process to name sexual abuse is a harmful silence with a dual nature: it prevents both this specific harm from being named when decertifying in individual cases, and contributes to an inability to track the frequency of police sexual misconduct in Connecticut and nationally. This contributes to a lack of accountability for police sexual misconduct, even as many other forms of police misconduct  have faced increased public attention over  the last three years.

The recent example of former New Haven officer Gary Gamarra demonstrates the incomplete progress and recognition in Connecticut’s accountability processes. In 2021, Gamarra was the first officer decertified under the newly expanded scope of the 2020 police accountability law following allegations that he raped at least two sex workers he met on the job.

Sustained advocacy by SWAN pushed not just for his firing but for his prosecution, including support by SWAN to the two women throughout the reporting process. Gamarra’ was never prosecuted, despite an internal review that demonstrated clear coercion: documents made public reveal that Gamarra told a sex worker that she “owed” him for not arresting her, and then demanded sex in return. Under internal investigation and SWAN pressure, he resigned, sought reinstatement and was then decertified, not specifically for his coerced sex but on the newly adopted groups of the 2020 law: that he exhibited “conduct that undermines public confidence in law enforcement.

Of course he betrayed the public trust, but if one of the key principles of law as legitimizer of public condemnation is to be followed, the specific facts of his ‘betrayal’—coerced sex elicited in the full knowledge that the women he targeted would not feel empowered to call themselves victims— needs more. The sexual nature of the abuse needs to be made visible, not just because of the last 40 years of rights advocacy against sexual violence, but because sexual violence against stigmatized persons —here, women who sell sex on the street—is made more likely by our silence.

It is possible for decertification grounds to include sexual abuse or misconduct as, for example, in California and Kentucky, and as included in a previously proposed bill in New York. The need for decertification for police sexual misconduct, as a broad category, is included in model policies and policy recommendations, and its lack of availability has been acknowledged as a barrier to addressing that violence for years around the country. And it is widespread.

Landmark reporting by the Associated Press, which its authors noted undercounted instances of abuse for a variety of reasons, found that around 1,000 officers were decertified for sexual misconduct between 2009 and 2014, with 33 in Connecticut. This form of police violence, including and especially when committed against Black women and sex workers, is left out of mainstream national and local conversations around police violence and calls for police accountability. Research shows that women are routinely sexually victimized by police nationwide, particularly if they are Black women or women of color, under 18, or perceived to be sex workers.

Yet these incidents are underreported, with those reporting often dissuaded or threatened, and those reports that may be made are often miscategorized as discourtesy, improper search, or unprofessional conduct. Indeed, standard criminal legal responses to sexual harm are even weaker in the context of police action, leading some states to enact laws specifically targeting and criminalizing police sexual violence.

Shockingly, courts across the country have found unnecessary sexual contact in the course of police stings against sex workers to be likely unethical, questionable, and morally objectionable but seldom sufficiently constitutionally significant to throw out prostitution convictions.

Making sexual misconduct a specific ground for decertification names this phenomenon, and also facilitates more regular, systematic reporting and action when it occurs. This has real consequences. Research suggests that many officers engage in sexual misconduct against multiple victims (in one study, 41% of cases were committed by officers averaging four victims each over a three-year span), and officers who had done so were more likely to have left a previous police position amid allegations of sexual violence. Research also suggests that officers likely learn and are influenced in misconduct through exposure to broader networks of misconduct. This reflects a dynamic nationwide, but also stretching back decades in Connecticut, including a slate of attacks on sex workers in Hartford in the 1990s.

The limbo status of the case against Former New Haven Police Officer Christopher Troche whose final disposition for sexual misconduct is still unclear, exemplifies this problem. His case – at least what is publicly knowable—is revelatory about the both the silence and the obfuscation around police sexual coercion.

He was originally charged in November 2021 with one misdemeanor count of patronizing a prostitute – an odd charge since the undocumented 19-year-old was not and never charged under prostitution law, and the facts make clear that Troche abused his police power at every possible opportunity: from initially contacting the young woman to invite her to his house using a phone number given when she was trying to report the harassment of her family, to offering the woman alcohol in his home despite her being under 21, and, according to her affidavit and earlier reports, coercing or even forcing physical sexual contact.

After it was over, he allegedly offered her money, not ostensibly for any sexual act, but to “help her out,” and then continually tried to coerce her into sexual exchanges via text for months. Yes, he was fired and paperwork was submitted to POST seeking his decertification as a police officer in the state, but the nature of his abuse needs a specific ground to stay in view.

This case also exemplifies the system-wide nature of police sexual abuse: Troche was one of five police officers that the young woman stated she had had sexual contact with, including Gary Gamarra named above, and three other officers, as yet publicly unnamed and unaccountable. In her affidavit, the young woman also stated that she told Gamarra of what happened between her and Troche and the fact that Troche had been offering her money for sex acts. Yet, she stated Gamarra never advised her to file a police report.

The case is a tangle of twists and turns – by the state focusing on the alleged exchange of money, public attention was both wrongly and pruriently directed to the situation of the young woman and away from the possibly forced nature of the sexual encounter. Troche went from facing a charge of sexual assault in the third degree, a felony charge that carries the possibility of one to five years in prison to a misdemeanor prostitution charge. Either charge was enough to get him fired, but the patronizing a prostitute charge brings us back to the swirl of misinformation around sex work, and the apathy for accountability for police violence against these persons.

We believe that among the many reasons the officers feel so able to use their position of public trust to target vulnerable women for exploitation is silence about the reality of police sexual abuse, including as compounded by other vulnerabilities that can be exploited for abuse by police violence against women, such as undocumented status and sex worker’s stigmatized social status.

Adding sexual misconduct to the grounds of POST decertification is not going to solve the whole problem of police abuse, but it will make clear that it is a problem—a problem of policing that must come to an end.

Beatrice Codianni is a longtime community activist, and founder and former Executive Director of the Sex Workers and Allies Network. She is currently working as a consultant with the Global Health Justice Partnership.

Alice M. Miller is the co-Director of the Global Health Justice Partnership of the Yale Law and Public Health Schools, where she teaches.

Daniel Newton is the Gender & Sexuality Fellow at the Global Health Justice Partnership.

Megan Handau is a la degree candidate at the Yale Law School and a research assistant with the Global Health Justice Partnership.