National Survey Finds That Police Hostility and Bias Remain Problems for Survivors of Sexual and Domestic Violence
By Sandra Park, Donna Coker, and Julie Goldscheid
The shooting deaths by police of unarmed African-American men and the violent treatment of Sandra Bland have focused national attention and outrage on the problem of police racial bias and brutality. A new national survey finds that the same kind of police bias often affects police responses to sexual assault and domestic violence.
Over 900 advocates, service providers, and attorneys who work with survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence responded to a national survey regarding policing and domestic and sexual violence. Responses from the Field: Sexual Assault, Domestic Violence, and Policing describes what they shared with us.
Advocates identified police inaction, hostility, and bias against survivors as a key barrier to seeking criminal justice intervention. Eighty-eight percent (88%) said that police sometimes or often do not believe victims or blame victims for the violence. Over 80% of respondents believed that police relations with marginalized communities influenced survivors’ willingness to call the police. Respondents told us that many police are biased against women of color, immigrant women, and poor women. They are biased against lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender survivors. They are biased against young survivors of sexual assault, believing that rape is really just “regret sex.” They are biased against sex workers and those who suffer drug addiction.
Victims are also concerned that police involvement will trigger negative collateral consequences. Nearly 90% of survey respondents said that contact with the police sometimes or often resulted in the involvement of child protective services, threatening survivors with loss of custody of their children. Sixty-one percent said that contact with the police sometimes or often results in charges that could lead to deportation, and 70% said police involvement sometimes or often results in the survivor losing housing, employment or welfare benefits. Some reported that victims themselves face arrest when reaching out to the police, particularly if they have a criminal record.
Advocates also said that many survivors’ goals do not align with those of the criminal justice system or how it operates. Some survivors were looking for options other than punishment for the abuser, while others feared that once they were involved with the criminal justice system, they would lose control over the process. Still others were reluctant to engage the system because they believed that it was complicated, lengthy, and would create more trauma.
It wasn’t all bad news. Respondents identified projects that they believe improve police response in their communities. Most advocates (70%) reported that community meetings between social service providers, police, and prosecutors were sometimes or very helpful. Respondents urged more collaboration of this kind between advocacy programs and the police. They also said that police needed better training, including anti-bias training, and departments should hire more women and people of color. They urged changes in police culture, policy and practice, such as prioritizing domestic violence and sexual assault cases and ending victim-blaming. And, not surprisingly, they urged more police accountability for misconduct in sexual assault and domestic violence cases.
While respondents described collaborative efforts between police and advocates as a key means of creating more accountability, they were largely unaware of independent mechanisms of monitoring the police. For example, 72% did not know whether civilian complaint boards or other types of independent, community-based police oversight mechanisms exist in their communities. A similarly large majority (61%) were unaware of the Department of Justice’s ability to investigate gender-biased policing – a process that has successfully instigated reforms in many police departments.
What does all this boil down to? First, we must support efforts to institute more robust accountability for law enforcement misconduct in domestic and sexual violence cases, including guidance to law enforcement from the Department of Justice on how gender biased policing violates survivors’ civil rights. This is sparking change in Puerto Rico, New Orleans, and Missoula, Montana where the DOJ investigated claims of gender bias, resulting in the adoption of new policies and the appointment of an expert monitor to oversee police reforms. In Puerto Rico and elsewhere, women’s rights, anti-violence organizations, and police reform groups, such as the ACLU, are working together to change the police response.
Police bias in these cases is surely anti-woman, but it is largely anti-certain women: women of color, immigrant women, lesbian and transgender women, poor women, sex workers. Solutions to police bias must focus on these intersecting biases. The racially biased police violence that has shocked the country and sparked renewed activism also infects police response to domestic and sexual assault cases. Training, accountability mechanisms, and research must take this intersectional approach. Responses must also recognize the problem of violence perpetrated by police – violence on the street and violence against intimate partners.
Second – and this may seem contradictory – we should concentrate less of our resources on policing. Why? Because we need to put more attention on changing policies that make people more vulnerable to sexual and domestic violence and changing police conduct won’t fix those problems. This will remain true as long as survivors risk deportation if police are involved; as long as survivors risk losing custody of their children; and as long as housing, welfare, and job training programs provide meager benefits completely inadequate to the need. And we should add mass incarceration to that policy list. We need to better understand the ways in which concentrated incarceration in low income communities of color may make women more vulnerable to domestic violence and makes contacting the police all the more dangerous.
Third, many survivors do not want a punitive criminal justice response to their partners’ violence. We must investigate programs that provide an alternative to criminal prosecution, including restorative justice programs and community-based transformative justice responses, as well as other approaches.
Our hope is that this report, and the insights from hundreds of advocates who work with survivors daily, will support the ongoing debates and re-thinking of the role of the criminal justice system within efforts to end gender-based violence.
This blog is co-authored by Donna Coker, and Julie Goldscheid:
Donna Coker, Professor of Law, University of Miami School of Law
Julie Goldscheid, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, CUNY School of Law