By Carol E. Tracy, Esq. and Terry L. Fromson, Esq.
The Women’s Law Project (WLP) commends the Department of Justice (DOJ) on its ground-breaking consent decree with the City of New Orleans, which addresses gender bias in the police response to and investigation of reports of sexual assault and domestic violence. This consent decree followed the March 2011 publication of the DOJ’s report on its investigation of the NOPD. The WLP identified the NOPD as one of the many police departments which have chronically failed to respond to rape complaints when WLP testified before a Congressional committee in September, 2010.
In March 2011, the DOJ released a report (pdf) of its investigation of the NOPD. The report addressed many areas of policing but, for women, the most dramatic component was its landmark finding of gender bias in police practice.
Specifically, the DOJ found that:
NOPD has systematically misclassified large numbers of possible sexual assaults, resulting in a sweeping failure to properly investigate many potential cases of rape, attempted rape, and other sex crimes. We find that in situations where the Department pursues sexual assault complaints, the investigations are seriously deficient, marked by poor victim interviewing skills, missing or inadequate documentation, and minimal efforts to contact witnesses or interrogate suspects. The documentation we reviewed was replete with stereotypical assumptions and judgments about sex crimes and victims of sex crimes, including misguided commentary about the victims’ perceived credibility, sexual history, or delay in contacting the police.
The consent decree, announced by DOJ on July 24, 2012 includes significant steps towards reforming the NOPD’s response to rape complaints. New Orleans has agreed to clarify its procedures for responding to sexual assault, train officers to appropriately classify crimes and conduct interviews in a sensitive manner, increase supervision, and most significantly, establish a committee that includes community advocates to annually review all sexual crimes classified as unfounded or miscellaneous, as well as a random sample of open investigations of sexual assaults.
Both the report and the consent decree establish benchmarks which other cities with similar entrenched practices should take note of and implement. For over a decade, the Women’s Law Project has effectively advocated or improved police response to sexual and domestic violence in Philadelphia and led the reform effort that resulted in the FBI’s recent expansion of the definition of rape for the Uniform Crime Reporting system. Following the issuance of its report, the DOJ invited the WLP to share with its staff the strategies that it helped to implement in Philadelphia to bring about reform. WLP is gratified to see that the consent decree incorporates several of these reforms. To read more about gender bias in law enforcement and WLP’s continuing work in this area, please see WLP’s 2012 report, Through the Lens of Equality: Eliminating Sex Bias to Improve the Health of Pennsylvania’s Women (pdf).