Police sexual misconduct and the ‘credibility discount’

The recent Injustice Watch investigation into officer David Brian and the Aurora Police Department portrays a troubling picture that is sadly typical.

Injustice Watch reports a set of striking numbers: 74 complaints were filed against Brian since 1996 with nearly half of them sustained; seven of these complaints were filed between 2016 and 2020, including at least two sustained reports of sexual misconduct. Despite this documented history, which includes at least two suspensions for sustained allegations of sexual asssault, a new sexual assault accusation earlier this year, and what some activists described to Injustice Watch as a reputation for “strik(ing) fear in youth and people of color in the community,” Brian apparently continues to work as an Aurora police officer. The urgent question that emerges from the Injustice Watch investigation is why.Book cover of

The answer comes down to credibility — but a broader notion of credibility than what is conventionally understood. In my book, “Credible: Why We Doubt Accusers and Protect Abusers,” I explain that credibility entails much more than belief that an allegation is true. For an allegation to be deemed credible, we must also believe that the conduct it describes is blameworthy, and that it’s worthy of our concern. Unless all parts of an allegation — it happened, it’s wrong, it matters — are accepted, the accuser will essentially be dismissed. Even if a complaint is sustained, or deemed to be true, it hardly matters if the consequence that ensues is trivial or nonexistent.

With this expanded concept of credibility in place, we can predict how an abuse allegation will be treated — we need only look at the power differential between accuser and accused. Those who come forward with an allegation against someone more powerful will almost surely confront what I call the “credibility discount.” The most extreme credibility discounts are meted out to the vulnerable among us — women, people of color, immigrants, low-income individuals, and members of the LGBTQ community. And those who are protected by greater status or position — usually men — are the beneficiaries of massive credibility boosts. Credibility is a form of power, meted out along familiar lines of power.

Once you have a name for it, you see credibility discounting everywhere. It’s not isolated or idiosyncratic; it’s patterned and predictable. It happens in the workplace, in medical settings, in salary negotiations. And it happens when law enforcement officers investigate allegations of abuse, whether the accused is a civilian or one of their own. In all these settings, the credibility discount helps to ensure the protection of the powerful.

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Illustration of Aurora Police Officer David Brian with a spotlight shining down on him

Aurora police officer accused of sexual misconduct remains on the job

Officer David Brian has racked up at least 74 complaints over a 26-year career in the Aurora Police Department, including two recent allegations of sexual harassment that were sustained by department investigators.

Across the board, our care is distributed unevenly and predictably: The suffering of an abuser who could face accountability for his misdeeds matters far more than the suffering of his victim.The disparity between inadequate regard for survivors and excessive regard for offenders reflects what I have termed the “care gap.”

This gap consists of many asymmetries, which track hierarchies that include gender, race, class, and more. In other words, the odds that a person’s suffering will matter correlates with privilege and status; we tend to care less about some victims than others and more about some abusers than others. Because care is distributed along lines of power, marginalized accusers are the most readily dismissed. And for those they accuse, power and influence provide a buffer against allegations of misconduct. The care gap reflects structural inequalities while covertly bolstering them.

Many who come forward with an allegation of abuse fall into the care gap. Survivors often refer to this as a second assault. “You don’t matter when what happened to you doesn’t matter,” many victims have told me. Accusers who are dismissed describe the fallout as every bit as bad as — or worse than — the abuse itself. I’ve heard this from accusers who were distrusted, accusers who were blamed, and accusers who were disregarded. Regardless of why their report was cast aside, the credibility discount exacts an enormous toll.

Headshot of Deborah Tuerkheimer

Deborah Tuerkheimer

What can be done about this? A credible accusation is one that disrupts the status quo in a meaningful way. What counts as “meaningful” necessarily depends on the allegation and the context in which it is made. But we know that a consequence is inadequate when it prioritizes the interests of the man accused. “Slap on the wrist” sanctions give abusers a pass, maintaining the status quo rather than disrupting it.

By contrast, true accountability can restore much of what the abuser took from his victim. Power. Sense of security. Sense of control. Ability to trust others. Dignity. Value as an equal member of the community. All of this is on the line each time an accuser discloses abuse. When we credit an accusation, we replenish what rightfully belongs to the survivor.

Laws against abuse and internal rules that prohibit the same are simply not enough to dismantle an enduring culture of impunity for abusers. We must put an end to the credibility discount.

Deborah Tuerkheimer is a professor at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law, a former New York County prosecutor, and the author of “Credible: Why We Doubt Accusers and Protect Abusers.”