SURVIVOR TESTIMONY

National Prison Rape Elimination Commission
Testimony of Erica Hejnar

Austin, March 26, 2007

Good Morning.  I’d like to thank you for allowing me to share my story with you via pre-recorded video.  Although I would have liked to testify before the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission in person, I’m eight months pregnant and it would not have been feasible for me to travel to Austin.

It is extremely difficult to recount the experience with sexual abuse I had at the 26th District of the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Police Department in 2003, but I hope that what I share with you will motivate the Commission to do everything in its power to ensure that others are not subjected to sexual violence while in detention.

During the evening of September 3, 2003, I went out with a friend to the store to pick up some diapers for my baby and as we were walking back to the shelter where we were staying, we got caught in the midst of a police drug raid.  My friend and I were surrounded by a group of police officers who threw us against a brick wall and immediately began verbally assaulting us.  A female officer was called over to search us for drugs.  This initial pat search on the street was very thorough and I emptied all of the contents of my pockets and purse to show that I had no contraband, but my friend and I were told that we were going to be taken to the station for another search. I pleaded with the officers and repeatedly told them that we had not purchased any drugs and that we didn’t have anything to do with the drug dealers involved in the sting, but still, we were handcuffed, thrown into the back of a police car, and taken to the 26th District police station. 

My friend was familiar with police procedure as she had a prior criminal record, and she was very anxious about the way we were being treated.  While we were in the back of the car she turned to me and whispered that something was definitely wrong.  She knew that they had no right to arrest us, or take us to the station.

When we arrived at the station a second female officer took us into a room and searched us.  During this search the officer patted our underwear, felt under our breasts, and made us squat and cough.  The search was extremely invasive and left me feeling frightened and uncomfortable.  I later found out that the second search was never authorized and that we should have been released after the initial search on the street showed that we were not in possession of drugs.  After this second search, the officer placed us into the cell, locked it behind her and left the outer room surrounding the cell. It struck me how strange it was that the police never asked us our names or to see our identification; they did not take our finger prints or allow us to contact anyone. Although we had been searched, we were not formally processed or told why we were being held.    

The officers wouldn’t listen to our pleas and kept treating us as if they had a legal justification for detaining us.  When the female officer left, a male officer entered the room and sat on a bench directly outside the cell.  I noticed that he was wearing his police uniform pants, but with a white shirt instead of the usual police uniform shirt.  I remember this because I took it as another warning sign that something was not right.  After sitting on the bench, he started talking to my friend and me, asking us what our names were and where we lived.  However, at no point did he ask to see our identification cards, or any other proof of our identity.  It felt as if he was acting inappropriately, and that his questioning had nothing to do with any perceived crime.  I was beginning to get very nervous and afraid about what would happen next.  I was certain that this was not normal procedure, and that this officer was completely out of line. But I was frightened that protesting further would only make the situation worse.

The officer next asked my friend and I if we were girlfriends and whether or not we liked “eating each other’s pussies.”  I was shocked, and could not believe that this was really happening.  Because our cell was inside a larger closed room, there were no other officers in sight that we could call out to or who could hear what he was saying to us.  Trying to keep the situation from escalating, I responded that we were just friends and that we had never had sex.  I prayed that he would stop asking us these questions, but he continued to look at us and our bodies in a very suggestive manner.  It felt as though his eyes were piercing right through our clothes. 

The officer propped up his feet and continued tormenting us.  He asked us again if we were girlfriends and threateningly demanded that we kiss each other.  As he told us this he jangled his keys in front of us, mocking us, and reinforcing the fact that he had all the power in the situation.  In total fear that we would not be allowed to leave if we did not comply with his demands, my friend and I kissed.  Unfortunately, the officer would not stop.  He told us that he wanted to see us touch each others’ breasts.  My friend put her hand on one of my breasts in compliance; the officer then proceeded to ask her if she liked “eating [my] pussy.”

I was so horrified that I started crying uncontrollably.  I demanded to know why he was doing this to us, but he continued to insist that we touch each other if we wanted to get out.  He threatened us that if we said anything, or made any noise, he would find something to charge us with so that we couldn’t leave. 

Then he told us to “lick each other’s pussies.”  I got so upset that I told him we were definitely not going to do that, but he pressed on, telling us that “no one would see [us],” and that he would not let us go until we did as he said.  My friend and I were both sobbing and started yelling in hopes that somebody would hear and help us.

We wanted to be let out of the cell and get away from this monster as soon as possible. We were distraught, angry, frightened, and crying hysterically.  Despite our outrage, there was no way out.  He kept telling me to “eat [my friend’s] pussy” and that if I didn’t, we couldn’t go home. When he said that he would find something to charge us with if we didn’t comply with all of his demands, I believed him.  It was without question the most humiliating and degrading moment of my life, and I could not believe that this so-called officer of the law had the power to violate us this way.  I was beginning to feel like this officer would be able to get away with absolutely anything he chose to do.  While this was happening, I noticed that another male officer stuck his head into the cell room and saw what was going on.  Instead of doing anything to help us, he gave the first officer a smile, a “thumbs up,” and walked away. 

My friend and I both began to fall apart at this point.  Perhaps because we were so visibly upset, and out of fear that somebody else might actually hear us, the officer suddenly decided to let us go.  He ordered us to fix our clothes, wipe our faces, and “get the hell out.”  When we went out into the main area of the station where the other officers were, we were still so upset that it’s hard to believe that none of them pulled us aside and asked what was going on or tried to find out what had happened back in that cell.  I wanted to scream out so that everyone in the building would know, but I was so afraid that if we said anything, we’d be thrown right back in the cell. 

While our release was being processed, I asked for a document stating that we had been held at the station, because the shelter I was staying at required verification of my whereabouts after curfew.  Hearing our request, the officer who had violated us hollered across the room and ordered us to get out.  He pointed to the door, and threateningly told us to go home. 

After we left the station, my friend and I realized that all of the money in my purse and some of our bus tokens were missing, so we ran back inside and demanded that our property be returned.  The same officer was waiting by the front window.  He physically dragged us out of the station and said, “Get the fuck out of here before I put you back in jail.” 

Afraid of what would happen if we made a scene, we left without our property.  As soon as I got to the shelter where I had been staying with my husband and kids, I told the administrators what had happened and that I wanted to make a report.  They encouraged me to do so, and told me to call 911.  I told the emergency operator exactly what happened and within minutes a police car came to pick me up so that I could give a formal statement.  I was taken to a different police station and questioned by the captain in private.  I gave him my report, and he faxed the written statement to the office of internal affairs that same night.

My friend decided not to join me in reporting what the officer had done to us.  She had a criminal record, and was already very distrustful of law enforcement.  I have no criminal record, had never been arrested, and would never have believed that something like this could happen.  I felt like the officer had to be held accountable, and that the public needed to know what some law enforcement officials were capable of.  I was relieved that the captain who interviewed me seemed to take my report seriously, and I assumed that he would make sure that the officer who did those horrible things to us would be prosecuted and punished.

Unfortunately, months went by and nothing was happening.  It seemed like every time I was in touch with officials from the Philadelphia Police Department’s Internal Affairs Unit, there had been some setback in the investigation.  For example, responsibility for my complaint changed hands several times, as investigators were reassigned or retired.  I became convinced that nothing would ever happen to that police officer.  I knew that he was still working in the same position, and I feared that he was continuing to sexually abuse other innocent women on the streets and at the police station. 

I myself have been unable to trust the Philadelphia Police Department ever since this incident.  Shortly afterwards, I spent several days in a psychiatric hospital because I felt extremely paranoid and became convinced that the officer was stalking me.  I walked around with a towel wrapped around my head because I did not want him to recognize me.  My family was so concerned that they recommended I stay at the hospital until some of my anxiety over the incident subsided.

In January 2006, the lawyer whom I had hired to represent me in a civil suit against the police department decided that it would be best for me to settle with them out of court.  I did not agree with the lawyer’s decision because I was not interested in monetary gain, but in seeing justice served.  Unfortunately, the lawyer did not want to take on a case against the Police Department, and so he went ahead with the settlement.  My portion of the settlement, after attorneys’ fees and expenses, was $5500, which is hardly restitution for the injustice I suffered. 

In any case, my understanding was that the internal affairs investigation had been closed by then.  I had given up all hope until reporters from the Philadelphia Inquirer asked if they could write an article about my case.  I agreed, and the reporters who wrote the story did more investigation of my complaint than the Office of Internal Affairs had done, forcing that department to take a closer look at my case. 

The difficult part of having an article about my case published was that I worried that it would be dangerous for me. In fact, I still feel paranoid and tense when I see a police officer, and I became increasingly nervous as the reporters investigated my case.  After the article was published in August 2006, two police officers approached me on the street and told me that they recognized me as “the girl that had made the allegations against that officer.”  This was really frightening as it made me feel very worried that I could face possible retaliation from other officers of the Philadelphia police department.

Despite my fear of retaliation, I am so glad that I took the risk to speak out about what happened to me and my friend.  On March 12, 2007, the Office of Internal Affairs published a report substantiating all of my allegations and finding five different officers—most importantly, the one who sexually violated my friend and me—guilty of misconduct for their actions that night.  The abusive officer will probably be terminated; four others were found guilty of trying to cover up the incident and will probably face suspension.  I am saddened, of course, that the officer who subjected us to such abuse will not be prosecuted.  The district attorney’s office has found that, despite the findings by Internal Affairs, there is insufficient evidence to charge him with a crime.

My spirit has been lightened and I am so relieved that I’ve finally been vindicated, and that the officers have finally been held accountable.  However, I am disappointed that it took more than three years because the internal affairs investigators at the Philadelphia police department did not do their jobs in this case. If it hadn’t been for those caring reporters at the Philadelphia Inquirer, I might never have been believed and the officer would not have been held responsible. 

So often, the public and the criminal justice system do not believe complaints of sexual abuse made by people behind bars.  I never should have been picked up by the police that night—my friend and I were at that police station only to satisfy the sick desires of an abusive officer.  I told the truth about what he did to us, yet, because it was incorrectly assumed that I may have been engaging in criminal activity, officials within the department and the public doubted my word against his.  I would therefore like to encourage the Commission to take steps to ensure that all complaints of sexual abuse against detainees and anyone else caught up in the criminal justice system are treated seriously.  Such complaints must be promptly and fully investigated, and perpetrators of such violence must be prosecuted. Despite my innocence, I was held at a police lock-up in a situation where no one else knew where I was or what was happening to me. The police had all the power and I had none and no one within the Police Department was apparently willing to challenge what this rogue officer did to us.

I thank you again for providing me the opportunity to speak to you today.

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