In so many ways, last week's cover story ("'Tarnished'") should reinforce people's faith in the Eureka Police Department. The story, based on the internal affairs investigation that sustained allegations of sexual battery and conduct unbecoming against former officer Michael Stelzig, illustrated that EPD did a lot of things right.
It took the allegations that were brought forward by one of Stelzig's colleagues seriously and investigated them vigorously. It promptly revoked Stelzig's police powers but respected his right to due process. And when the allegations were ultimately sustained, it referred Stelzig for criminal prosecution (prosecutors declined to file sexual battery charges) and fired him, even though his predatory behavior occurred while he was off-duty at a social gathering.
But reading through the documents, we kept coming back to the lengthy transcript of an interview with the officer who reported Stelzig to his superiors.
Reading the transcript — especially after reading that one woman told investigators the experience left her feeling "violated" — is like watching a car crash in slow motion. It's a reminder to everyone, especially men, that we all have a role to play in stemming the epidemic of sexual violence. And make no mistake, it is an epidemic. Consider the statistics:
- More than one in three women and nearly one in four men report having experienced sexual violence
- Nearly one in five women have experienced completed or attempted rape
- Every 73 seconds, someone is sexually assaulted in the United States
In the words of Journal arts and features editor Jennifer Fumiko Cahill, it's enough to make women feel like prey animals, always scanning for potential danger and safe spaces.
To be sure, there is a lot we as a society need to do to shift this paradigm. We need to make sure authorities have the laws and resources available to hold predators accountable. We need to shift our highly sexualized culture to one that promotes respect and demands consent. We need to believe survivors. And collectively, we need to be better allies, which brings us back to that transcript.
First we should note the difficulty and importance of the officer's reporting Stelzig's conduct to his superiors, recognizing how cases like this can tear at the fabric of close-knit police departments. But we also see this is a teachable moment, a chance for each of us to reflect on how to be a better, more effective ally.
According to the transcript, the officer told investigators that Stelzig began "bird dogging" the woman from the moment she arrived at the gathering, making repeated attempts to hug her and put his arms around her. (She told investigators she had to repeatedly spin or twist away to avoid being groped. If you don't know what this looks like, ask a woman in your life.) The officer described one interaction in which he noticed his fellow officer speaking to the woman while leaning with his arm up against a wall, saying it appeared he had her cornered. At another point, after he said he saw Stelzig put his arm around the woman's waist and neck, the officer said she was visibly uncomfortable. He told investigators he wished he had a photo of her face to show them her "hilarious" expression, adding that someone could look at it and realize, "Holy cow, this woman wants off the ride."
Perhaps most troubling was the officer's response when asked if it appeared Stelzig's advances were "welcomed by this woman."
"It didn't but, at the same time, she wasn't running away or anything and I'm like, well, you're not holding anything, you know, and you could like punch this guy or knee-strike him to the groin or something ... but she wasn't running away," he said.
Plainly, if our collective threshold for intervention is waiting for someone to fight or flee, we're just enabling predators. And there is nothing "hilarious" about seeing someone violated while unsure how to extricate themselves from a physical interaction they clearly do not want.
As North Coast Rape Crisis Team Community Outreach Coordinator Paula Arrowsmith-Jones told us for last week's story, speaking about sexual assault generally and not about Stelzig's case, social pressures can make intervening in such interactions difficult for bystanders. But she also explained that it's important to understand that effective intervention does not have to entail a direct confrontation.
To reiterate, Arrowsmith-Jones said she teaches the "three Ds" of intervention — direct, distract and delegate. So here's what we do:
Direct: Confronting the perpetrator directly about their behavior and telling them to stop.
Distract: Get the perpetrator or the other person out of the situation by saying you need to speak with them, show them something or some other excuse.
Delegate: Tell other people what you're witnessing, bringing other eyes, ears and ideas to the situation.
We hope this is a chance for us as a community to reflect on these types of situations and how each of us can effectively intervene in the future to protect a neighbor. Epidemics, after all, require communitywide responses. So the next time you see someone who desperately wants "off the ride," give them a hand down.