Patterns Of Sexual Abuse Show Gaps In Police Disciplinary System
By the end of her discussion with the California Highway Patrol sergeants, the woman was scared — worried the department would only protect the officer who had just propositioned her for sex during what should have been a routine vehicle inspection appointment.
She had walked directly into the CHP's West Valley office in Los Angeles after the 2016 encounter with officer Morgan McGrew and asked to meet with a Spanish-speaking officer. She wanted authorities to fully understand what she had to say — that McGrew had just asked her three times, in front of her young son, if she wanted to get a hotel room.
The sergeants turned on an audio recorder and started to interview the woman; her son can be heard playing in the background. Is it possible she had misunderstood, one of them asked. "No, I understand everything," she said, according to transcripts and audio recordings of the conversation. Her claim was highly unusual, the other sergeant noted. "I don't lie," she told them.
McGrew would later admit to propositioning women on-duty during a CHP internal investigation into his conduct. In fact, her complaint led investigators to nearly two dozen other women who said McGrew sexually harassed them during vehicle inspections. McGrew, who was fired in 2017, did not respond to requests for comment.
Lifting the veil on internal police investigations
Internal police investigations in California, such as the one that involved McGrew, have long been hidden from public view behind laws protecting police officers' privacy, but that's beginning to change. NPR member station KQED obtained documents and audio recordings from the 2016 probe under California's Right to Know Act. The law, which took effect in 2019, has lifted the veil of secrecy on a narrow segment of police misconduct records from law enforcement agencies across the Golden State.
In addition to shootings, other cases involving the serious use of force and official dishonesty, the law unsealed investigations into some cases of sexual misconduct by law enforcement officers. Some case files include body camera footage, audio tapes and other records that offer a window into what had been confidential internal affairs probes — essentially how the police police their own.
Despite the law, the California Highway Patrol, one of the largest law enforcement agencies in Calif., did not provide records from recent cases like McGrew's until KQED sued to get them in May 2020.
While many agencies continue to stall in providing full case files, KQED and NPR analyzed 103 sexual misconduct cases from different departments across the state. These records were obtained as part of The California Reporting Project, a coalition of newsrooms in the state, founded by KQED.
The analyzed cases showed most of the victims of police sexual assault and harassment were women and girls. In many cases, victims were vulnerable to an officer's authority: They were arrestees, confidential informants, incarcerated people, sex workers and police Explorers — young people interested in a career in law enforcement. Most of the time, they did not or could not consent.
On Our Watch, a limited-run podcast from KQED and NPR, delves into several of these cases and examines the system of police accountability. The podcast's second episode focuses on the investigations of two CHP officers found to have committed sexual misconduct. CHP investigators concluded each officer harassed or propositioned multiple women they met at work. While both of the officers were fired, records show the agency did not refer potential crimes to prosecutors. And the files show some women who came forward were met with suspicion, discouragement and what one woman saw as intimidation.
"One day, she'll give in"
CHP Officer Frank Meranda met a lot of women at work. He helmed the front desk of a highway patrol office in Contra Costa County east of San Francisco.
He told investigators examining over 1,000 personal emails he exchanged with women on his work computer that all of the contacts were consensual. Many contained explicit photos that Meranda solicited from the women or took of himself.
"I'd go into the restroom and try to send them a quick picture if I didn't have one," he told investigators in 2017.
But at least one of the eight women Meranda contacted said his repeated, unwanted advances were anything but consensual. Meranda did not respond to a request for an interview.
The woman, who spoke with KQED on the condition of confidentiality because she fears retaliation from police, said Meranda stalked and harassed her after he obtained her contact information from a form she filled out about a towed vehicle in 2015.
She told KQED that she changed her phone number, but she said he found her new number in a police database. When she blocked his number, she said he called from another phone. He also sent her pictures of his penis, according to the woman and internal investigation files. CHP investigators also confirmed that Meranda searched a police database for her by name, approximate age and license plate number.
"I think he knew exactly what he was doing," the woman said in an interview. "I think he was just hoping [that] one day, she'll give in."
Disbelief and a pattern of abuse
California Highway Patrol Sgts. Jeremy Key and Fernando Martinez met with the woman in Los Angeles when she reported McGrew's behavior during her 2016 vehicle inspection appointment. At one point, Key, who was McGrew's supervisor, asked her if she'd been drinking.
The woman, whose name was redacted from the internal investigation files KQED obtained, said she didn't drink, do drugs, or smoke. "I'm a mother to four kids," she said. But Key said he smelled alcohol and asked her to follow his finger with her eyes.
When she apparently passed the sobriety check, Key apologized. Martinez then asked why she thought McGrew would ask her to go to a motel room. She said in Spanish it meant McGrew doesn't respect women, and that he was asking her for sex.
Her complaint led investigators to 20 more women who said McGrew sexually harassed them during routine Vehicle Identification Number inspections over the two and a half years he worked in that position — from early 2014 to mid 2016. McGrew told investigators that he never intended to follow through with the propositions. He said repeatedly that he did it only to "see if they'll say yes."
However, the investigation found that he dated and had phone sex with at least one of the women he met on duty. He exchanged explicit texts with another. When investigators pressed him on why they had discovered two boxes of condoms in his work locker, McGrew said they were unrelated to his propositioning women he met during vehicle inspections.
The CHP didn't probe McGrew's entire nearly 14-year career, and the agency contacted only adult women who had a VIN appointment with him. Records indicate the agency didn't pursue potentially criminal misconduct by McGrew and never notified prosecutors.
On Our Watch's analysis of sexual misconduct by 103 officers from departments across California found 85 officers engaged in non-consensual or coercive sexual misconduct, and records indicate nearly half of them were never criminally investigated or referred to prosecutors.
McGrew and Meranda were both quietly fired, and details about their cases were initially kept secret under California state laws that have protected police disciplinary inquiries from the public. The CHP fired six other officers for on-duty sexual misconduct between 2014 and 2018 but did not pursue criminal charges in any of those cases.
Philip Stinson is a criminal justice professor at Bowling Green State University who studies police crime and misconduct. His research has found that sexual misconduct is one of the more common types of police misbehavior, and that the analysis of 103 cases represents "just the tip of the iceberg."
"Police sexual misconduct is fairly common in many police departments, many state and local law enforcement agencies across the country," Stinson said. "That is not to suggest that every police officer is engaging in sexual misconduct. But I can tell you that most every police officer could identify another officer who they are aware of or have been told or there are rumors about having committed acts of sexual misconduct while on duty."
"A blue wall of silence"
While the woman in Contra Costa County never directly told Meranda to stop texting her, she said she tried not to encourage him. Eventually his messages did taper off, she said, until she ran into him in a children's clothing store and he hugged her.
"It was really weird and uncomfortable and another creepy move," she said in an interview with KQED.
After that, the unwanted messages started up again, and the woman decided she would try another tactic. She said she responded to Meranda by email, pretending to be her own husband. It worked for about a month, until her boyfriend got a call from Sgt. Keerat Lal, Meranda's supervisor, who told him she was having an affair with a CHP officer.
That move made the woman distrust the Highway Patrol even more, she told KQED, and she said she would only provide a statement to investigators with her attorney present. Lal refused.
The internal records give no indication that investigators in either the Contra Costa or Los Angeles cases faced discipline for the way they treated women who filed harassment complaints. The CHP didn't answer specific questions about its handling of either of these cases.
"The CHP conducts a fair and impartial investigation of any employee or employees suspected of misconduct and, where warranted, takes appropriate corrective or disciplinary action up to and including termination," a spokeswoman wrote in a statement to KQED.
Criminal justice professor Stinson said the #MeToo movement that has shaken other industries in recent years has not hit law enforcement because of a heavily ingrained police subculture.
"The culture of policing overrides a lot of this, and it's going to be very, very difficult to make meaningful reform," Sinson said. "It's a closed-door society, it's an us-versus-them mentality. There's a blue wall of silence in many places."
"Sexual misconduct is such a normalized part of the police subculture in many places across the country," he added. "It's just business as usual."
Listen to On Our Watch on Spotify. You can learn more about the show, a co-production of NPR and KQED at KQED.org.
This podcast is produced as part of the California Reporting Project, a coalition of news organizations in California.
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