Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced new guidance Tuesday designed to help law enforcement prevent gender bias when responding to sexual assault and domestic violence incidents.
"We know that sometimes this bias, whether implicit or explicit, can stand in the way of effective law enforcement and can severely undermine law enforcement’s ability to hold the offenders accountable," Lynch said. "We have seen situations where false assumptions about things like alcohol use, or the physical strength of the victim’s partner, or a victim’s sexual orientation, can lead police officers to make judgments about the truthfulness or credibility of a survivor’s account, or the severity of the assault."
In a document outlining the new guidance, the Department of Justice acknowledged that gender bias can result in police underreporting domestic violence and sexual assault cases, failing to test sexual assault kits, treating domestic violence as a family matter and not enforcing protection orders, among other issues.
The guidance includes eight principles to guide police departments when responding to domestic violence or sexual assault cases:
- Recognize and address biases, assumptions and stereotypes about victims.
- Treat all victims with respect and employ interviewing tactics that encourage a victim to participate and provide facts about the incident.
- Investigate sexual assault or domestic violence complaints thoroughly and effectively.
- Appropriately classify reports of sexual assault or domestic violence.
- Refer victims to appropriate services.
- Properly identify the assailant in domestic violence incidents.
- Hold officers who commit sexual assault or domestic violence accountable.
- Maintain, review and act upon data regarding sexual assault and domestic violence.
The guidance comes a few months after the ACLU released a report finding that survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault face significant police discrimination when interacting with the criminal justice system.
Advocates and attorneys working with survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault reported that victims are frequently not believed by police, or are blamed for the violence they experienced. A majority of respondents said that police did not take domestic violence and sexual assault cases seriously.
“"The reality is that many police officers are skeptical of rape and domestic violence complaints, because of inaccurate and biased stereotypes.”
"Domestic violence-related calls constitute the single largest category of calls received by police departments, so how police officers respond to domestic violence and sexual assault has a huge impact on the lives of women, families, and communities across the United States," said Sandra Park, senior staff attorney in the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, who co-authored the report in October. "Police practices can either help end the cycle of violence or they can perpetuate it."
As the DOJ notes, 90 percent of all rape cases in the U.S. involve female victims, and almost one-fifth of women in the U.S. have been raped. One in four women have experienced severe physical violence at the hands of an intimate partner. Around three women per day are killed in domestic violence homicides, and another nine women are critically injured.
"The reality is that many police officers are skeptical of rape and domestic violence complaints, because of inaccurate and biased stereotypes. The impact, especially in already-marginalized communities, is that assaults aren’t reported or the reports aren’t believed," said Kim Gandy, president and CEO of the National Network to End Domestic Violence.
"If police departments across the country take this guidance seriously, commit themselves to understanding the reality of rape and domestic violence for the victims, genuinely work to end their own biases and stereotypes, and work closely with local shelters and crisis centers, it will create a sea change for victims, and many more perpetrators will be held to account," she said.
The guidance also specifically calls for law enforcement agencies to hold police officers who commit sexual assault or domestic violence accountable for their crimes.
Just last week, a jury found a former Oklahoma City police officer guilty of 18 counts of sexual assault, including four counts of first-degree rape. A recent Associated Press investigation of sexual misconduct by U.S. law enforcement found almost 1,000 cops who lost their badges over a six-year period for sexual misconduct -- a number the AP called "unquestionably an undercount."
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