Gender Discrimination Findings and Recommendations in New Orleans Police Department Consent Decree

July 25, 2012

Yesterday the Department of Justice announced that it had entered into a wide-ranging agreement with the City of New Orleans to address findings of discriminatory conduct, as well as unconstitutional conduct or violations of federal law in several areas including unconstitutional stops, searches and arrests; use of excessive force; and discriminatory policing on the part of the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD).  In March of last year, the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division released its findings after conducting a comprehensive investigation of the NOPD that showed, for example, “that officers in NOPD routinely use unnecessary and unreasonable force,” “NOPD officers engage[d] in a pattern of stops, searches, and arrests that violate the Fourth Amendment,” and they engaged in discriminatory policing, such as engaging in “practices lead[ing] to discriminatory treatment of LGBT individuals.”  The investigation also revealed multiple violations of federal law and unconstitutional conduct including, for the first time, a finding of reasonable cause to believe a police department had engaged in a pattern of gender biased policing.  The Civil Rights Division findings describe gender biased policing in the following way:

Law enforcement may not selectively deny protective services to certain groups, including women. This principle applies to the under-investigation of violence against women, including sexual assault and domestic violence. Nonetheless, in many cities reports have surfaced of law enforcement agencies undercounting and failing to investigate allegations of sexual and domestic violence. Such under-enforcement appears to stem in part from cities’ reluctance to acknowledge the extent of serious crime in their communities, and in part from stereotypes and misapprehensions about sexual assaults and the victims of sex crimes.

According to the investigation, a large number of sexual assaults were misclassified and unacceptably investigated.  The NOPD also had significant weaknesses in policies and practices related to investigations of domestic violence.  These are examples of gender discrimination in policing. 

The agreement announced yesterday outlines a number of steps NOPD will undertake in response to the problems cited in the investigation, including measures to improve its response to crimes of violence against women.  I commend the City of New Orleans, the Mayor, and leadership of the NOPD for their commitment to reform and am hopeful that New Orleans will soon serve as a model to other jurisdictions across the nation.

Unfortunately, New Orleans is not alone in its historic failure to appropriately respond to violence against women.  Nearly 18 years after passage of the Violence Against Women Act, responses to these crimes still vary widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.  In some communities, victims encounter a highly-trained, coordinated team of primary and secondary responders from the health, law enforcement, legal, and victim services sectors.  In other places, however, victims are subjected to humiliating interrogations and examinations and are treated with suspicion by law enforcement.  Collected evidence may sit for months or even years without being analyzed.  Victims may be offered limited, if any, support or services, and are provided with insufficient information regarding the progress of their case.  A victim may even be accused of lying and threatened with arrest for false reporting.  And for some victims in rural areas, law enforcement, forensic medical services, counseling and other services simply are not available.

When 1 in 3 women experience violence perpetrated by an intimate partner and 1 in 5 experience sexual assault, this is simply unacceptable.

The work of the Civil Rights Division to investigate gender biased policing makes clear that improper handling of domestic and sexual violence investigations may constitute gender discrimination in violation of the Equal Protection guarantee of the United States Constitution.  Inappropriate responses to domestic and sexual violence amount to police misconduct and violate federal law.  Equally importantly, when law enforcement does not appropriately respond to crimes of violence against women, victims are less likely to report crimes and repeat offenders are sent the message that they can continue to assault women with impunity.

The systematic, widespread inadequacies in addressing sexual assault and domestic violence identified by the Civil Rights Division should alert jurisdictions across the country:  The time is now to review and revise policies and practices to ensure they are free from gender bias.  The Department of Justice has an ongoing commitment to providing training, technical assistance, and other resources to the City of New Orleans, and other jurisdictions, in support of their reform efforts.  Our dedication to this issue is reflected in the work of our grantees and technical assistance providers who produce model policies, best practices, and a host of resources for law enforcement on how to appropriately address domestic and sexual violence cases.

For example, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), an OVW grantee, produced “Investigating Sexual Assault Model Policy” and “Sexual Assault Incident Reports: Investigative Strategies.”  These documents provide guidelines for responding to reports of sexual assault and developing a coordinated response to these crimes.  In 2010, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges created “Civil Protective Orders: A Guide for Improving Practice,” which includes a chapter for law enforcement on enforcing protective orders, victim safety, and proper firearms protocol.  IACP also developed a “Law Enforcement Officer’s Guide to Enforcing Orders of Protection Nationwide,” which discusses full faith and credit, the elements of a protective order, and information about assessing lethality and firearms. 

 Of course, we know we cannot simply focus on one segment of the justice system – whether it is law enforcement, prosecutors, judges, or juries – and expect to fix the problem.  Over the past 18 years, we have learned that any truly effective response to violence against women must be informed by the experiences of survivors and must be broad enough to include a diverse group of community partners to effect safety for survivors and accountability of perpetrators.  Praxis International, another OVW grantee, developed a tool, “Planning and Conducting a Best‐Practice Assessment of Community Response to Domestic Violence,” which can aid jurisdictions in assessing their domestic violence policies and practices across the community.

At OVW, we stand ready to work with and support jurisdictions like New Orleans that are prepared to do the hard work of ensuring that all victims of violence, regardless of gender, have access to the justice and safety they deserve. 

To learn more about the investigation and consent decree please visit: http://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/2012/July/12-ag-917.html