On any given day of the week, we read news articles that showcase how police bias against women, whether conscious or implicit, undermines law enforcement’s response to allegations of sexual and domestic violence.
Gender discrimination in law enforcement can take many forms, including the outright refusal to properly process rape complaints or send rape kits to the lab for timely DNA testing, and a failure to conduct a full and adequate investigation. Interviews can warp into interrogations. This type of systemic failure has been repeatedly exposed in police departments across the country including New Orleans, Washington, DC and Philadelphia.
Even when the will exists to investigate violence against women, unconscious bias and belief in deeply held stereotypes about women can lead to disbelief and rejection of allegations of sexual assault and domestic violence. For people of color and LGBTQ citizens, layers of bias intersect and amplify in ways that all too often keeps justice out of reach.
This morning, the U.S. Department of Justice formally issued the first-ever guidance to address this crisis, titled “Identifying and Preventing Gender Bias in Law Enforcement Response to Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence.”
“This guidance … is designed to help state, local and tribal authorities more fairly and effectively address allegations of domestic violence and sexual assault,” said Attorney General Loretta Lynch while announcing the department’s release of the document.
The guidance, which highlights the need for clear policies, robust training and responsive accountability systems, was developed in collaboration with a wide variety of government stakeholders, police leaders, and legal advocates, including the Women’s Law Project.
Immediately following the Attorney General’s announcement, a panel discussion was convened to explore ways advocates and police leaders can ensure local implementation.
Women’s Law Project Executive Director Carol E. Tracy, who has worked with the Department of Justice on improving institutional response to sexual assault for many years, framed the guidance as an historic opportunity for police to eliminate biases that undermine their investigations and threaten public safety.
The following is an excerpt of Tracy’s prepared remarks:
The guidance is unprecedented for its acknowledgement of historic bias associated with gender-based crimes, its inclusion of the important knowledge-base of the impact of trauma on victim behavior, and its embrace of the important principles of modern policing as outlined in The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing report. The guidance provides a coherent framework or blueprint against which to measure needs and progress.
Our policy work on sexual violence began 15 years into the aftermath of an investigative report by the Philadelphia Inquirer that alleged the Philadelphia Police Department Special Victims Unit was not investigating approximately one-third of cases reported to it. We led an advocacy effort that included calling for a reinvestigation of cases, which took place. The allegations proved to be correct. Then-Police Commissioner John Timoney displayed remarkable transparency and leadership throughout the re-investigation, instituting appropriate management and accountability structures, and sharing results of the re-investigation. Ultimately, he turned to the advocacy community and asked us to review their cases files because he saw that the public had lost confidence in the department. This innovative approach turned a confrontation into an extremely productive collaboration that includes what is now known as “the Philadelphia model,” wherein we conduct an annual review of sexual assault complaints in strategic partnership with other expert advocates. Two subsequent commissioners, Sylvester Johnson and current commissioner Charles Ramsey, have continued this audit and have continued to implement systems improvements in response to sex crimes, as well as a major reorganization of police response to domestic violence.
What I also know from years of experience is that cultural norms about the role of women in society, though changing, still have very deep roots that frequently manifest in victim-blaming: rape victims are profiled as liars, and domestic violence victims as provocateurs. Women have been viewed legally and socially, on one hand, as the property of men and on the other as responsible for male behavior. It would be foolhardy for anyone to suggest that police are immune from bias – or prosecutors, or judges, or the jury pool.
It takes a lot of hard work to undo centuries of deeply ingrained attitudes and beliefs about gender, race, sexual orientation and gender expression. Where bias is explicit, it must be rooted out. There should be no place in 21st century policing for explicit bias of any kind. Acknowledging the deep seeds of implicit bias is more challenging and complex, but necessary in responding to the diversity and changing norms of 21st Century America.
Download the full guidance document.
Watch video of the DOJ event.
For a full transcript of Carol Tracy’s prepared remarks, more information, or to schedule an interview, contact Tara Murtha at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Founded in 1974, the Women’s Law Project is the only public interest law center devoted to women’s rights in Pennsylvania.