News Violence

Justice Department Addresses Systemic Gender Bias in Police Responses to Assault Complaints

Kanya D’Almeida

The Department of Justice on December 15 took steps toward preventing gender bias in police responses to sexual assault and domestic violence with a 26-page guidance document.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) on December 15 took steps toward preventing gender bias in police responses to sexual assault and domestic violence with a 26-page guidance document.

Developed in collaboration with advocates for survivors of sexual assault and domestic abuse, the guidelines call on law enforcement officers to recognize and address their assumptions or stereotypes about domestic violence, treat victims with respect and refer them to appropriate services, properly identify the assailant, and thoroughly investigate all reports of sexual abuse.

In an interview with Rewire, Sandra Park, a senior staff attorney in the American Civil Liberties Union’s Women’s Rights Project, said that the ACLU and its partner organizations first raised these issues with the DOJ three years ago, partly due to the Obama administration’s openness to discussing policing in the context of sexual abuse and domestic violence, and partly because of then-ongoing advocacy efforts around one survivor in particular, a Colorado woman named Jessica Gonzales.

On June 22, 1999, Gonzales contacted the Castle Rock Police Department to report that her estranged husband, Simon, had kidnapped her three daughters, ages 7, 9, and 10, from her front yard, violating a domestic violence order of protection.

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Gonzales made repeated entreaties for ten hours, both over the phone and in person, to law enforcement authorities to search for her missing children. Each time they informed her there was nothing they could do, advising her to “call back later” if the kids still hadn’t returned home.

At dawn the following morning, Simon Gonzales drove with his three daughters in tow to the police station and opened fire. A gun battle ensued after which the police recovered from the vehicle his lifeless body as well as those of his children.

Whether the girls were murdered by their father or died in the hailstorm of bullets fired during the shootout is still unclear; the Castle Rock police never conducted a full investigation into the incident, and for many years the federal government, all the way up to the Supreme Court, denied that Jessica had a constitutional right to police enforcement of the restraining order.

That changed on August 17, 2011, when, in a landmark decision, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) ruled that the United States was responsible for violating the human rights of Jessica (who was named in the petition as Jessica Lenahan) and her daughters, and recommended the adoption of institutional and policy reforms aimed at tackle the underlying issues leading to the 1999 tragedy.

Advocates like Park say the DOJ’s recent guidance document represents an important step toward implementing the commission’s recommendations.

“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,” Park said in a statement released Tuesday. “Police practices can either help end the cycle of violence or they can perpetuate it.”

The ACLU in October conducted a comprehensive survey, involving some 900 attorneys, advocates, and organizations, on police responses to domestic and sexual abuse. A majority of respondents—88 percent—reported that police tended not to take survivors at their word, or blamed them for the violence. Several respondents described situations in which police inaction, or dismissal of a report, actually increased a batterer’s likelihood of retaliation.

Furthermore, survivors tend to avoid interactions with law enforcement due to what the ACLU terms “collateral consequences,” including subsequent involvement with child protective services, the possibility of criminal charges, and fear that interaction with the criminal justice system will “trigger immigration or deportation proceedings.”

Respondents to the ACLU survey also said survivors who were financially dependent on the abuser were concerned about the loss of income or child support if the partner was arrested. Some 77 percent of respondents said contact with the police “sometimes” or “often” led to either the victim or abuser losing housing, employment, or welfare benefits.

“The numbers of those affected by domestic and sexual violence are too high, and we know that a significant percentage of those people will right now say that they will never call the police again if they experience domestic and sexual violence because of past bad experiences,” Park explained.

“The key is to improve that first interaction between a survivor and an officer, [because] when an officer responds appropriately to a survivor it really shapes to what extent a survivor has trust in the criminal justice system to protect them,” Park continued.

She pointed to the example of Daniel Holtzclaw, a former Oklahoma City police officer who was recently found guilty on 18 of 36 charges involving the rape or sexual assaults of 12 Black women and one 17-year-old.

“In this case, we know that none of the victims reached out to the police except one—largely because they did not think the police department would trust their allegations,” Park said. “In the end it was only because the last survivor felt that her credibility was not undermined by other factors and came forward” that an investigation began, eventually leading to Holtzclaw’s dismissal from the police force and subsequent guilty verdict, she added.

The seventh of the eight principles laid out in the new DOJ guidance specifically deals with officers who commit sexual assault or domestic violence, and clearly lays out ways in which law enforcement agencies should hold their personnel accountable for such violations.

Gender bias in law enforcement responses to domestic abuse and sexual assault has a long history. In 1991, three years before the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) came into existence, then-Sen. Joe Biden stated that after decades of state law reform, “it [is] still easier to convict a car thief than a rapist [and] authorities [are] more likely to arrest a man for parking tickets than for beating his wife.”

Biden was referring to prevailing social and institutionalized notions that intimate partner violence and domestic abuse was a “private matter,” not to be hauled into the public realm or held up to scrutiny, and the even more troubling tendency among law enforcement agencies to distrust survivors.

An average of 20 people suffer physical violence at the hands of an intimate partner every single minute—totaling ten million people annually—according to a national survey published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) last year. Each year, two million women are raped, while seven million men and women are victims of stalking.

Approximately one in five women, compared to one in 71 men, have experienced rape, while one in four women have suffered “severe physical abuse” at the hands of an intimate partner, compared to one in seven men. Some 16.2 percent of all women have experienced stalking, according to the CDC, while 5.2 percent of men have experienced the same.

The numbers clearly show that intimate partner violence and domestic and sexual abuse disproportionately impact women, making the DOJ’s guidance a welcome first step toward tackling the epidemic, advocates say.

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