In December of 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice issued guidance for law enforcement agencies (LEAs) seeking assistance to improve their response to sexual assault and domestic violence. Entitled “Identifying and Preventing Gender Bias in Law Enforcement Response to Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence,” the guidance identified specific ways that gender bias undermines the law enforcement response to these cases.

The document also outlines eight principles that can guide the development and implementation of a more effective response:

  • Principle 1: Recognize and Address Biases, Assumptions and Stereotypes about Victims
  • Principle 2: Treat All Victims with Respect and Employ Interviewing Tactics that Encourage a Victim to Participate and Provide Facts about the Incident
  • Principle 3: Investigate Sexual Assault or Domestic Violence Complaints Thoroughly and Effectively
  • Principle 4: Appropriately Classify Reports of Sexual Assault or Domestic Violence
  • Principle 5: Refer Victims to Appropriate Services
  • Principle 6: Properly Identify the Assailant in Domestic Violence Incidents
  • Principle 7: Hold Officers Who Commit Sexual Assault or Domestic Violence Accountable
  • Principle 8: Maintain, Review and Act upon Data Regarding Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence

The guidance provides numerous examples and practice pointers on integrating these principles into departmental practices, training and supervision.

In her statement on the release of the guidance, Attorney General Loretta Lynch stated “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.” She adds, “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.”* 

The guidance can be found online here.

Examining the Intersectionality of Gender and Other Biases: Assessing Barriers to Service for Underserved Victims

Through its grants, the Office on Violence against Women (OVW) has been supporting projects in which LEAs work closely with the advocacy community to integrate these principles into practice. The Virginia Partnership for Community Defined Solutions to Violence Against Women (hereafter, the Virginia Partnership), a statewide multi-agency team** sought to understand the particular barriers to services faced by three underserved groups: African American victims, older adult victims, and immigrant/limited English proficiency (LEP) victims. In 2014-15 the State of Virginia obtained OVW funding to conduct a needs assessment of their statewide response to underserved victims of domestic and sexual violence.

Service providers, including advocates, law enforcement officers and magistrates, were asked to respond to an electronic survey regarding the effectiveness of their services to these populations, and then participated in focus groups. The team convened focus groups with victim-survivors from these populations in both urban and rural areas as well.

The needs assessment exposed notable barriers to victim safety and offender accountability within the criminal justice system and social services, or in families and cultural communities. Unsurprisingly, the barriers were complicated by the intersection of gender and other cultural identities, which often overlap in multiple ways (victims who are older adult immigrants or African American females). The four main areas identified as “Priority Barriers” were:

  • distrust of the system response due to past negative personal experiences that were often related to biases in the system;
  • lack of culturally relevant services that were timely, affordable, reliable and comprehensive;
  • consequences (perceived or actual) for disclosure of violence related to gender or culture which results in pressure not to seek help; and
  • minimization (community, familial, provider) of sexual and domestic violence, again often related to gender or cultural biases related to victim-blaming and silencing.

As a result of the information gathered by this needs assessment, the Virginia Partnership obtained significant data and feedback that illuminated the ways that gender and other biases operate in the response to domestic and sexual violence. The team works to address these Priority Barriers statewide through targeted training and resources aimed at addressing the specific needs of these marginalized and underserved communities.

Additional resources on their best practices and future trainings can be found on their website.

What We’re Reading: Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, Jon Krakauer

Jon Krakauer, esteemed adventure and outdoor writer, has turned his considerable investigative skills and detailed reporting to the topic of campus rape with his newest book, Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, published in 2015. Krakauer delved deeply into rape culture in the college community of Missoula, Montana – a locale notable for its beautiful mountain surroundings, its trout streams and its championship university football team. However, Missoula is also now known as a community where the actions (and non-actions) of police, university officials, and the district attorney office, in the handling of acquaintance rape cases earned it the scrutiny of the Department of Justice. 

Missoula is a compelling look at the rapes of two young college-age women by two football players (one a close childhood friend of the victim), the resulting University-adjudicated cases, and subsequent criminal cases investigated by the police and charged by the district attorney. Krakauer chronicles the impact on the victims, the community, and the University and brings attention to the campus rape epidemic and inherent culture of rape acceptance that is by no means unique to Missoula, Montana.

As a respected author who had never tread into the realm of sexual violence and gender bias, Krakauer brings a nuanced look at the treatment of victims of sexual violence who attempt to seek “justice” through the criminal legal system. He also brings a refreshing astonishment of the treatment of these victims. A must-read book for all practitioners working in these systems. 

*U.S. D.O.J. Press Release, December 15, 2015.
**The team was comprised of a statewide partnership between the Virginia Office of the Attorney general, the Office of the Medical Examiner, the Department of Criminal Justice Services, the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Network, and the Virginia Poverty Law Center.