Violence against women is a global phenomenon that can affect anyone. In some cases, whether a woman is alive or not does not deter abusers from committing horrific acts, even if they are well aware of the consequences. In another incident of violence against women perpetrated by officers belonging to the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), a family is suing an officer for mishandling human remains, among other charges, after body camera footage revealed the officer allegedly fondling a dead woman’s body.
The family of the deceased woman, Elizabeth Baggett, filed the lawsuit with representation from attorney Gloria Allred Tuesday in the Los Angeles County Superior Court. The lawsuit named officer David Rojas as the perpetrator and accuses other LAPD members of viewing and sharing the body cam recording of the incident. According to the lawsuit, after discovering Baggett was deceased, Rojas “sexually molested Decedent, including fondling Decedent’s breasts and feeling her nipples.”
The incident took place on Oct. 20, 2019, and was first reported by the Los Angeles Times in December 2019. Rojas and his partner responded to a call regarding a dead woman in a residential unit. Upon determining the woman was deceased, Rojas’ partner returned to the patrol car to retrieve something, and that’s when Rojas turned off his body cam and allegedly fondled Baggett’s breasts, LAPD officials said. While Rojas had made a point to turn off his camera, a two-minute buffer on the device was able to capture the incident, the Los Angeles Times reported. It is unclear how long the officer allegedly molested the dead woman.
After the footage was discovered and reported, Rojas was removed from active duty and taken into custody by the Internal Affairs Division after being charged with a felony violation of the state safety codes covering sexual actions with human remains. He did not plead guilty to the charges and was released on $20,000 bail pending trial in January.
Rojas, a member of the force for four years, was denied support from the police union representatives, who said they would not defend him or pay for his expenses during his criminal proceedings. "His alleged behavior is abhorrent and an affront to every law enforcement professional working for the LAPD," the union said. Rojas’ criminal trial has been postponed multiple times due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. "This incident is extremely disturbing and does not represent the values of the Los Angeles Police Department," LAPD Chief Michel Moore said at the time of the incident. But while not on active duty, Rojas still remains employed by the LAPD, NBC News reported.
While the family acknowledges the criminal charges against Rojas, they noted other offenses in the incident including negligence, invasion of privacy, mishandling of human remains, and the intentional infliction of emotional distress.
“I am infuriated that this man had so little respect for another human being, our Elizabeth, for not having the thought that she is someone’s daughter, granddaughter and mother,” said Janet Baggett, Elizabeth Baggett’s mother, at a news conference announcing the lawsuit. “We, her family, have sleepless nights, if we are able to sleep. I personally wake in sweats from the nightmares that haunt me about the events of Elizabeth’s death,” Janet added. “Days are not much better.”
Janet told reporters that she just wants justice for her daughter and lives in “fear that the video will surface and another devastation will be added to what is already unbearable."
In a statement read by Allred on Tuesday, Baggett’s 15-year-old son Preston Sertich expressed that while he used to want to be a police officer, he can no longer trust the police after such an incident. “What has this officer gotten away with to believe this was even possible?” Sertich’s statement said. “Is there a pattern of behavior against women, arrestees or decedents? How could you employ this man and let him represent your City?”
According to NBC News, 34-year-old Baggett’s death was ruled an accidental overdose by the medical examiner's office. The family is devastated not only because of her loss but the actions taken upon her at the time of her death. Not only was Baggett abused by an individual meant to protect society, but video footage of her assault was shared and viewed by others, Allred noted during Tuesday’s press conference.
"So many women are sexually abused during their lifetime, and now we learn that some are even sexually victimized after their deaths," Allred said. "To add insult to injury, the knowledge that a police officer, during the course of his investigation of the death of a young woman, would take advantage of his position of power and trust to allegedly sexually abuse the body of a deceased person is very upsetting."
According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, which includes crimes that were not reported to the police, more than 600 women are sexually assaulted in the U.S. each day. The survey found that many crimes go unreported because victims and their families feel nothing can be done about the incidents. But while one’s socioeconomic status, profession, and race don’t make them less likely to be a victim, these factors do not make one less likely to commit crimes of this nature.
Research from Bowling Green State University found that police officials in the U.S. were charged with forcible rape 405 times between 2005 and 2013, an average of 45 incidents a year. Instances of forced fondling were more common, with 636 reported instances during that time period. However, these statistics are not exhaustive, as most such incidents go unreported. Researchers say data on sexual harassment and assaults by law enforcement officials is almost nonexistent.