The Department of Justice issued groundbreaking new guidance to law enforcement agencies this week, detailing how certain police responses to domestic violence and sexual assault violate victims’ civil rights.
The guidance comes on the heels of DOJ investigations of gender-biased policing in New Orleans; Puerto Rico; Missoula, Montana; and Maricopa County, Arizona; which documented the systemic failure of police departments to properly investigate domestic violence and sexual assault cases or to hold police officers accountable when they commit domestic or sexual violence.
“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. “Police practices can either help end the cycle of violence or they can perpetuate it.”
Even when an assault clearly qualifies as criminal activity, survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault may face disbelief, victim-blaming and hostility from law enforcement.
The ACLU and its partners recently released a report – “Responses from the Field: Sexual Assault, Domestic Violence, and Policing” (www.aclu.org/feature/responses-field?redirect=responsesfromthefield) – documenting biases against survivors as reported by advocates and attorneys who work with them.
The DOJ guidance calls on local police departments to examine their practices and policies relating to policing of domestic violence and sexual assault, which disproportionately impact women and LGBT people. It lays out the following eight principles that should guide police departments:
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; and
Maintain, review, and act upon data regarding sexual assault and domestic violence.
“The new DOJ guidance is a critical tool welcomed by both law enforcement and community advocates that empowers them to work together to improve how domestic violence and sexual assault cases are handled,” said Park. “Survivors must have equal access to an unbiased criminal justice system that offers them protection and ensures that perpetrators cannot act with impunity.”
Courts and the DOJ have concluded that victims of domestic and sexual assault crimes are denied equal protection under the U.S. Constitution when these crimes are treated less seriously than other offenses based on gender bias.
Victims’ due process rights are also violated when police commit acts of violence, such as sexual assault, or when a victim is put at greater risk as a result of police conduct.
The ACLU, along with other civil rights and anti-violence groups, sought DOJ guidance on gender-biased policing, and over 180 national, state, and local groups joined a letter reinforcing this request in June.
Domestic violence and sexual assault are two of the most prevalent forms of gender-based violence. In the U.S., over one million women are sexually assaulted each year, and more than a third of women are subjected to rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime, with women of color disproportionately affected.