Justice Dept. issues new guidance for police response to domestic violence, sexual assault | Policies follow investigations of gender-biased policing

The Wisconsin Gazette

The Department of Justice this week issued new guidance to law enforcement agencies, detailing how certain police responses to domestic violence and sexual assault violate victims’ civil rights.

“Gender bias, whether explicit or implicit, can severely undermine law enforcement’s ability to protect survivors of sexual and domestic violence and hold offenders accountable,” said Attorney General Loretta Lynch.  “This guidance – developed in collaboration with law enforcement leaders and advocates from across the country – is designed to help state, local and tribal authorities more fairly and effectively address allegations of domestic violence and sexual assault.  In the days and months ahead, the Department of Justice will continue to work with our law enforcement partners nationwide to ensure that they have the tools and resources they need to prevent, investigate and prosecute these horrendous crimes.”

The guidance comes on the heels of DOJ investigations of gender-biased policing in New Orleans, Puerto Rico, Montana and Arizona that 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 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
  • 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.

Domestic violence and sexual assault are two of the most prevalent forms of gender-based violence. In the U.S., over a 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.