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U.S. Department of Justice
Office of Community Oriented Policing Services

145 N Street, N.E.
Washington, DC 20530

August 2022 | Volume 15 | Issue 8

Domestic violence and sexual assault incidents are among the most common calls for police response, but they can also be the most challenging due to the importance of collecting sufficient evidence and conducting trauma-informed victim interviews.

To help agencies meet these challenges, the Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women (OVW), recently released updated guidance for recognizing, mitigating, and preventing the biases that can undermine effective response to and successful investigation of sexual assault, domestic violence, and other forms of gender-based crime.

Updated and Expanded Guidance for 2022
Learning from Examples

Real-life examples of right and wrong approaches make the guidance principles easy to understand and adopt, as in these two examples illustrating Principle 4: Appropriately Classify Reports of Sexual Assault or Domestic Violence.

Bad Practice Example:

A friend brings a woman to a police station and tells the officer that her friend was raped while on a date the night before. While they are still sitting in the public waiting area, an officer asks the woman what happened, and the woman says she does not remember and does not know if she was raped. The law enforcement officer on duty fills out a report, but immediately classifies the incident as “unfounded.”

Good Practice Example:

A friend brings a woman to a police station and tells the police that her friend was raped while on a date the night before. An officer brings the woman and her friend to a private area to ask the woman about what happened. The officer asks her open-ended questions and is unperturbed when she answers some of his questions with “I don’t know” or “I don’t remember.” The woman is able to explain that she can usually handle two drinks easily, but after a second drink the night before, she became very drowsy and does not recall what happened next. She says that she woke up in her date’s apartment and she feels bruised and raw in her genital area. The officer arranges for the woman to be driven to a hospital for a medical forensic examination and explains to the woman that if she consents to provide a urine sample, it will be transported immediately to a crime laboratory for toxicology testing in accordance with the jurisdiction’s drug-facilitated sexual assault policy.

Titled Improving Law Enforcement Response to Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence by Identifying and Preventing Gender Bias and built upon the guidance released by OVW in 2015, the May 2022 update has been expanded to provide information and best practices based on the most recent research and input from law enforcement leaders, victim advocates, and other stakeholders.

Along with more detailed information, the addition of real-world scenarios, and an increased number of resources, the 2022 guidance includes a more thorough exploration of the need for trauma-informed responses to sexual and domestic violence.

It also offers concrete examples of how agencies can incorporate the guidance principles into their policies and practices.

Another enhancement is the discussion of a wider range of biases, such as those involving people of color, immigrants, and the LGBTQ community, explaining how they can intersect with gender bias to negatively affect outcomes and undermine justice.

Eight Principles of Effective Response

The guidance is centered on eight principles, which, when integrated into a law enforcement agency’s policies, trainings, and practices, can help to increase public trust and ensure that even unrecognized prejudices don’t weaken efforts to keep victims safe and hold offenders accountable:

  • Principle 1 – Recognize and Address Biases, Assumptions, and Stereotypes about Victims: When myths and misperceptions about sexual assault and domestic violence influence law enforcement’s response, officers can blame victims and fail to hold offenders accountable.
  • Principle 2 – Treat All Victims with Respect: Use interviewing strategies that are trauma-informed and support the victim’s disclosure of facts about the incident.
  • Principle 3 – Ensure that Policies, Training, Supervision, and Resource Allocation Support Thorough and Effective Investigations: Collect, preserve, and analyze evidence.
  • Principle 4 – Appropriately Classify Reports of Sexual Assault or Domestic Violence: Appropriately document and clear them after a complete investigation.
  • Principle 5 – Refer Victims to Appropriate Services: Make timely and suitable referrals for healthcare, advocacy, shelter, legal consultation, and other services.
  • Principle 6 – Properly Identify the Predominant Aggressor in Domestic Violence Incidents: Distinguish between an assailant’s violence and a victim’s self-defense actions.
  • Principle 7 – Implement Policies to Prevent Officer-Perpetrated Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence and Hold Officers Who Commit these Offenses Accountable: Address the prevention of, and response to, sexual assault and domestic violence perpetrated by officers in clear, stand-alone policies.
  • Principle 8 – Maintain, Review, and Act Upon Data Regarding Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence: Regularly examining data helps law enforcement agencies and their community partners get a clear picture of strengths and gaps in the justice system’s response.

All of these principles are explained in detail with real-life “Do’s and Don’ts” and advice for putting them into practice, including examples of what to say in various situations. The eight principles are easy to adopt—whether by officers who want to improve their job performance and victim services, or by agencies wishing to revise policies and improve training materials.

Detailed Explanations and Concrete Examples

In explaining Principle 6, for instance, the new guidance states that, in cases where both the abuser and the victim have used physical force, it is essential that officers be trained to identify the predominant aggressor. This requires distinguishing defensive wounds from offensive wounds and recognizing strategies that abusers use to obfuscate their violence and evade responsibility.

The updated guidance is a user-friendly document which all law enforcement agencies can use to strengthen their efforts to ensure that the perpetrators of sexual assault and domestic violence crimes are held accountable, victims receive meaningful access to justice, and communities are safer.

To these ends, OVW encourages law enforcement agencies to adopt the principles with top-down policies applied to operating procedures, supervision, and training.

“When leadership understands how pervasive subconscious gender bias is, playing a role even in internal issues, they can enhance or improve the agency’s core values and the way they respond to all incidents,” said Fred Fletcher, former chief of the Chattanooga (Tennessee) Police Department.

“It’s important to have champions of these principles at the highest levels, because it’s only when the values reflected in this guidance are embraced by the top levels of the organization that things change. When these principles are embedded and accepted throughout the organization, it will support organic efforts to address gender-based violence and support victims,” Fletcher explained.

Meaningful Change Starts at the Top

Describing it as “powerful” and “easy to navigate,” Tom Tremblay, former Chief of the Burlington (Vermont) Police Department, added that the document is “a great tool for law enforcement agencies and their community partners.”

“Review the guidance together and compare with your current policies, SOPs, and training curriculums,” he advised, “and look for ways the guidance can assist in enhancing your efforts to ensure equal protection of the law for all.”

In announcing the publication of the guidance, Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said, “When gender bias impacts policing. . . law enforcement’s legitimacy erodes, and survivors’ trust in police is diminished.”

When survivors trust law enforcement, they are more likely to report crimes, serve as witnesses, and assist investigators, making their communities safer. Dispelling the corrosive effects of bias on law enforcement procedures benefits everybody—including law enforcement.

In conjunction with the revised guidance, OVW has launched a Policing Guidance Resource List, which hosts a comprehensive, annotated list of resources designed to assist law enforcement agencies working to implement the guidance and its core principles. For a summary of the guidance and related resources, see OVW’s website.

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