Elisabeth Samson Lee sat alone in her office one quiet afternoon stuffing envelopes when a co-worker came up behind her, reached into her lap and rubbed his fingers across her crotch before grabbing an envelope.
Horrified, she shot up and pushed her way past the man, who was blocking her cubicle. She then asked to file a police report.
Samson Lee was in the right place: She was a records clerk working for the Pine County sheriff, and the assailant was a sergeant. The same sergeant had grabbed her from behind three weeks earlier, an incident she also reported to her supervisors. Her superiors assured her he would be reprimanded. A report wouldn’t be necessary.
“It’s not like I was going to the newspaper or something,” Samson Lee said. “I was just telling the people around me, watch out for me, protect me, I don’t feel safe here.”
After a long battle with law enforcement agencies and the courts, Samson Lee, a 54-year-old single mother of two, is now the face behind a bill to mandate that allegations of sexual assault by police officers be investigated by the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, the statewide law enforcement agency.
The BCA receives referrals from chief law enforcement officers around the state in cases where their own officers need to be investigated. That includes sexual assault cases and police shootings, but there is not a legal requirement that they be handled by an outside agency. It’s part of a broader national debate over impartiality in investigations against police officers, those who are sworn to protect and serve the public.
It’s impossible to know the extent of the problem in Minnesota because data is almost nonexistent. From 2015 to 2019, the BCA investigated approximately 11 criminal sexual conduct cases involving police officers, though the agency has not said how many were sustained. Moreover, the agency doesn’t know how many cases were never forwarded to them for investigation.
Minnesota has 422 law enforcement agencies and more than 11,000 licensed, active police officers dispatched across the state, according to the BCA, but individual agencies don’t track sexual offense cases within their own departments.
Rep. Kelly Moller, DFL-Shoreview, who is carrying the bill in the House, said going through the BCA will be streamlined and simpler for victims, and it will help in tracking data on how often these cases occur.
National research from Bowling Green State University, which was compiled through newspaper clippings and public police reports, found police officers in the U.S. were charged with rape 405 times between 2005 and 2013. The report also found 636 cases involving forcible fondling.
In February, Cottage Grove officer Adam Pelton was charged with multiple counts of criminal sexual conduct for allegedly touching female high school students. Joshua Demmerly, a former police officer from Warroad, Minn., was sentenced to three years in prison in November for kidnapping, stalking and sexually assaulting a teenager. But the cases that end up in the news or result in charges are just a fraction of total incidents, said Jonathan Blanks, who worked on the study. Most cases never make it that far.
“Intake officers have been alleged to discourage people from filing cases. The dark joke is these cases go into a circular file,” he said. “The system so often lacks transparency, or the officers have protections, either through collective bargaining agreements or state law. It’s hard for anyone to know what’s actually going on.”
Samson Lee said she was never interviewed about what happened. She spoke directly to other women in the community who had similar experiences with the sergeant, but she was told they never came forward. The sergeant reportedly got a letter in his file, she said, but there’s no public paper trail.
“I was told a litany of things: it was an accident, creepy is not a crime, he’s so busy he doesn’t know what he’s doing,” she said. “What he did to me, we arrest people for.”
The Pine County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to a request for comment.
Brian Peters, executive director of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, said these kinds of cases are rare in his experience. But he noted that local sheriffs are elected in all 87 counties, and it’s wise to take politics out of investigations, particularly when they involve allegations of sexual offense against police officers.
“These cases don’t happen often, but when they do happen they need to be investigated thoroughly,” said Peters. “The BCA isn’t a political machine versus, maybe, an elected official of a county. Officers, if they are accused of a crime like this, need to be held accountable like anybody else.”
But critics of Moller’s bill contend that law enforcement leaders should have more options in how they investigate their own.
Bill Hutton spent two decades as the sheriff in Washington County and never had a case of assault against an officer, but he would often ask sheriffs in counties across the state to conduct investigations into his own officers in other administrative or criminal matters. Now, as executive director of the Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association, he’s concerned that Moller’s bill would limit law enforcement from asking other agencies, like a sheriff from a different county, to investigate.
“I do not believe that any one agency holds the magic formula for [impartiality]. The BCA obtains their investigators from local law enforcement, both city and county,” he said. “There are well-trained, competent investigators across the state of Minnesota. The BCA doesn’t hold the corner on that.”
Moller’s proposal, which has sponsors in both chambers, recently passed out of a House public safety committee with no opposition. But the BCA said criminal sexual conduct investigations take roughly 140 hours, and they’d need to hire a full-time staffer to handle the cases if the legislation passes.
In her apartment, Samson Lee opens a filing cabinet drawer packed with documents that she started collecting the day nearly eight years ago that she asked to report the Pine County sergeant. For nearly two years, she documented every time the Sheriff’s Office put her in the vicinity of the sergeant. She left the job after she learned that someone with access to the Driver and Vehicle Services database had looked her up. “I was terrified for myself, wherever I was,” she said.
She filed a harassment lawsuit that resulted in a $27,500 settlement with the Sheriff’s Office. An investigator with the Police Officer Standards and Training Board also wanted to charge the sergeant with assault. But by then, the statute of limitations had run out. The sergeant retired with benefits.
At the Capitol, Samson Lee also is supporting a bill that would erase the statute of limitations for sex offenses. She said she hopes her story is instructive to women trapped in a similar situation.
“There’s a blue wall of silence,” she said. “It’s a horrible, horrible thing. There needs to be a safe place for victims to go.”