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40 Percent of Police Officers Convicted of Child Sex Abuse Don't Get Prison Time, Investigation Finds

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Shadows showing police officers among red and black background hinting at prison bars | Illustration: Lex Villena; Midjourney

A new investigation from The Washington Post has revealed that over the past two decades, almost 1,800 police officers were charged with crimes related to child sexual abuse. Even worse, of those convicted, nearly 40 percent managed to avoid prison time. 

The investigation revealed a staggering lack of accountability for officers who sexually abuse minors—finding not only that convicted officers often received paltry sentences, but that police departments sometimes rehired officers with child sex abuse convictions.

The Post‘s analysis looked at thousands of court filings, as well as The Henry A. Wallace Police Crime Database, the county’s most comprehensive database of police arrests. The authors found that, between 2005 and 2022, around 17,700 police officers were charged with crimes—and 1 in 10 of those were charged with a crime involving the sexual abuse of minors.

The crimes officers were charged with varied, though most charges were for a few specific offenses. According to the Post‘s analysis, 39 percent of officers charged with child sexual abuse crimes were charged with rape. Twenty percent were charged with crimes related to child sexual abuse material (another term for child pornography) and 19 percent were charged with forcible fondling.

Eighty-three percent of charged officers were convicted. However, only 61 percent of convicted officers received prison time. Fifteen percent received local jail sentences, and a striking 24 percent received sentences as light as probation, fines, and community service. 

But even those imprisoned received relatively light sentences. Half were sentenced to less than five years in jail. 

Why did so many officers seem to get off easy for heinous sex crimes? According to the Post, it comes down to how prosecutors and judges treat police officers.

“Prosecutors have broad discretion in the types of charges they bring, the plea bargains they offer and the cases they are willing to take to trial,” the Post‘s analysis reads. “Judges play a critical role at sentencing hearings in determining what punishment officers deserve.”

Police departments also shoulder much of the blame.

“Departments hired officers who had been accused—or sometimes convicted—of child abuse, domestic violence and other serious crimes,” reads the Post‘s investigation. “In some cases, officers fired for their conduct have appealed their terminations through their police union protections, won their jobs back and then were convicted of abusing kids.”

The analysis shows just how commonplace police sexual abuse can be—and just how many barriers have been erected to prevent convicted officers from receiving adequate punishment for their crimes.

“This happens to communities all across the country, but it’s not on people’s radar,” Phillip Stinson, a former police officer and criminal justice professor at Bowling Green State University, told the Post. “And then, police chiefs adhere to the bad apples theory, where they say, ‘There’s nothing to see here, we got rid of this problem when we fired them.’”

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