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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Wyatt Cenac's examination of policing in America delves wrenchingly into police sexual violence

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Screenshot: Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas

Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas usually rides its host’s measured, wry comic sensibility over some equally smooth transitions. On Friday’s show, for example, Cenac started out with a bit about the massive student debt crisis (complete with a loan officer’s grasping arm emerging from his viewer mail bag), to a goofy filmed piece about those assholes who have no sense of personal space or right-of-way on New York’s teeming sidewalks. But, coming back to his toy-and-viewscreen-strewn studio, Cenac admitted that there was no easy way to segue into his main story (or one way, “awkwardly”), since the bulk of the episode was devoted to the topic of sexual assaults committed by law enforcement officers.


Interviewing three women—one a cop herself—who’d been variously victimized by police officers, Cenac could only listen to the women as they related the horror of what had happened to them. Courageously recounting terrible events, ranging from sexual and physical harassment to rape, the women explained how their pain and fear was only compounded by the fact that their only recourse was to report their attackers—to the police. One, raped by New York City police officer Michael Pena, told Cenac that, despite Pena being caught in the act by two other cops, his trial was hardly the open-and-shut case that might have suggested. Another woman, accompanied by her now-grown daughter for support, tearfully told Cenac how her attack by two cops left her ashamed and fearful to this day, her daughter explaining that they’ve moved several times since the officer—convicted only of lesser charges—was released from prison after only four years. And the NYPD officer whose colleagues escalated their harassment from verbal to frightening physical abuse, told Cenac of her worries about retaliation on the job.

With Cenac throwing out his traditional onscreen statistics (like how it’s still somehow legal for cops to engage in sex with people in their custody in 35 states), and interviews with his roster of former and current law enforcement talking heads, the piece feelingly portrayed what a huge problem police sexual violence is. (The one retired cop still grousing that the introduction of women to the police force meant going into action with “one [officer] and a lady” illustrated the sort of entrenched attitudes at play.) Activists explained that the uniquely powerful position of police officer means that sexual predators with badges have everything they need for cover, especially since those officers engaging in sexual violence know to target vulnerable people (women of color, LGBTQ people, and people fearing prosecution) far less likely to report their attackers—and even less likely to be believed and supported by the police if they do. Leaving off yet another episode devoted to talking about—like the title says—the most problematic areas of American policing, the somber Cenac could only offer the contact information for RAINN, and the hope that New York’s Civilian Complaint Review Board (newly empowered to investigate sexual misconduct) will strike at the heart of a culture where unscrupulous men abuse their power.