New Guidelines Crack Down on Gender Bias in Policing

The Department of Justice is taking a closer look at stereotypes and biases in law enforcement’s response to sexual and domestic violence.
(Photo: Aaron Josefczyk/Reuters)
Dec 15, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

When former Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw’s 13 sexual assault and rape victims testified against him at trial, nearly all of them said that they assumed no one would believe them. Recognizing that widespread sentiment among sexual and domestic violence survivors, the Department of Justice on Tuesday issued new guidelines for state, local, and tribal police that aim to eliminate gender bias in way law enforcement responds to victims. The new guidelines are geared toward improving the way police interact with women and members of the LGBT community.

“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 U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch. “When bias interferes with a law enforcement response, justice can be delayed, and victims can suffer.”

Stereotyping of and bias against victims have been shown to discourage people impacted by sexual and domestic violence from reporting their experiences and seeking help. In a nationwide survey of more than 600 domestic violence survivors conducted in April, two-thirds of respondents told the National Domestic Violence Hotline that they were reluctant to contact police because they believed they would either not believe them or do nothing.

These problems are especially likely to occur in marginalized communities that already struggle with police-community relations, according to a separate report on law enforcement’s response to sexual and domestic violence from the American Civil Liberties Union.

The Justice Department’s guidelines instruct police departments to mitigate these problems by implementing training that thoroughly identifies and addresses issues of bias and stereotyping by officers and better ensures that all officers treat victims with respect and investigate all complaints of sexual or domestic violence.

“This is a really important step toward taking a look at gender bias in policing and its impact on victims’ lives,” said Monica McLaughlin, director of public policy for the National Network to End Domestic Violence. “We need to do everything in our power to make sure that the [criminal justice] system is responsive to survivors’ needs.”

The guidelines also offer a passing mention of the need to hold officers who perpetrate this kind of violence—such as Holtzclaw—accountable. Some advocates have expressed concern that the guidelines don’t more directly address violence committed by officers themselves—not just in their communities but also in their own homes. Multiple studies have found that roughly 40 percent of police officer families experience domestic violence, compared with 10 percent of families in the general population, according to the National Center for Women and Policing.

“How can we expect officers to adhere to these guidelines if they don’t adhere to them when policing themselves?” asked Soraya Chemaly, an expert on gender bias and sexual assault. “A lot of the problem is that officers who have been implicated in intimate partner violence and domestic violence aren’t ever sanctioned internally.”

While Chemaly is supportive of the new guidelines, she expressed concern about the lack of mechanism by which to measure the scope of the gender bias problem, both at home and in the communities police serve. She also noted that most police officers already undergo training intended to address implicit racial bias, an issue that should go hand in hand with gender bias.

“We need to measure the scope of the problem first, so we can measure change,” Chemaly said.