OAKLAND, Calif. — The police department in Oakland, Calif., asks officer applicants to disclose whether they have been sexually assaulted — a practice that appears to be a rare and potentially problematic inquiry, a newspaper reported Sunday.
The San Francisco Chronicle queried police in the state’s 10 most populous cities and could not find another instance of screening for people who have been sexually assaulted.
Legal experts told the newspaper that the inquiry is odd and potentially problematic, but there is disagreement about whether it’s illegal.
Oakland police officials said a candidate would not be denied a position for having been sexually assaulted. Officials said they want the information so they can review police reports in which applicants may appear.
The disclosure request is on a release form that has been in use since at least 2011, well before the #MeToo movement that started a year ago.
The question comes up when recruits sign and get notarized a form that allows the police department to conduct a background check to determine suitability. The form authorizes, for example, the release of education transcripts, credit history and local criminal history information, “including if I have been a victim of sexual assault.”
Oakland officer Marco Marquez said the department’s background investigators are “interested in every police report that an applicant might appear in,” including whether the person was a suspect, witness or victim.
But questions about an applicant being a witness or suspect are not asked, the newspaper said.
The Oakland application practice is inexcusable, said Penny Harrington, a retired police chief in Portland, Ore., and the first woman to lead a major-city police force.
“There’s absolutely no reason to be doing that,” said Harrington, who founded the National Center for Women and Policing. “I can’t imagine why they would need to know that information, except as a way to wash out women.”
Joan Williams, a professor who is an expert on employment law and sex discrimination at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, called the disclosure requirement “clearly illegal.”
“The stereotype is that women who have been sexually assaulted turn into raging ids and tear machines and could never be objective again,” she said.
Deborah Rhode, a Stanford Law School professor who studies equal protection and sex discrimination, disagrees that the question is illegal, saying it’s posed to men and women.
But she finds the disclosure request puzzling. “I don’t know if the assumption is that someone who’s been a victim can’t be objective,” she said.
Representatives for Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf and the Oakland Police Department did not respond to request for comment Sunday.