Justice News

Head of the Civil Rights Division Vanita Gupta Delivers Remarks at the Announcement of Gender Bias Policing Guidance
Washington, DC
United States
Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Thank you, Attorney General [Loretta E.] Lynch, for those kind words, for your outstanding leadership at the Department of Justice and for your unwavering dedication – throughout your career in public service – to protecting our most vulnerable citizens from harm.  It’s a pleasure to join you all this morning.

As the Attorney General just highlighted, gender bias and stereotypes – combined with misinformation about sexual assault and domestic violence – can have a devastating impact on all stakeholders across society: from victims seeking protection, to police officers investigating crimes, to prosecutors administering justice.

In order to collectively advance the type of victim-centered and trauma-informed response to sexual violence so vital to protecting public safety – we need to proactively identify and address harmful stereotypes based on one’s gender, gender identity, sexual orientation or race.  We also need to recognize and address the unique harm that survivors experience at the intersection of discrimination on the basis of race and gender.  Because in America, we guarantee equal justice, dignity and fairness for all people – regardless of what they look like, whom they love or with which gender they identify.  Today, that simple but unwavering belief continues to define the beauty, identity and vibrancy of our nation.

You just heard about the Justice Department’s investigation in Missoula, Montana, but I want to briefly illustrate the troubling trends we discovered there with tangible examples.  Stereotypes about women and misinformation about sexual assault prevented the police from conducting fair, impartial and thorough investigations.

In one instance, a female student told a Missoula police officer that while intoxicated at a fraternity house, her assailant held her up “like a sack of flour” and a “rag doll” as she resisted until eventually falling over and losing consciousness.  The detective omitted many of these key details, concluded that the assault was largely voluntary and identified the primary offense as “suspicious activity.”  In another disturbing example, two campus police officers responding to a reported sexual assault in a residence hall used the term “regretted sex” within earshot of the alleged victim – precipitously assessing her credibility before conducting an investigation.  This diminished the likelihood, from the outset, that she or other sexual assault survivors would be willing to participate in the prosecution of their cases. 

These stories from Missoula illustrate the consequences that can result when police officers do not receive guidance or effective training for responding to reports of sexual assault.  Without established protocols and comprehensive training in place, gender stereotypes and bias can undermine the quality of investigations and impede justice.

But the agreements we reached in Missoula demonstrate the promise and potential for meaningful reform when law enforcement agencies collaborate and coordinate with the communities they serve.  And the leadership of many of the law enforcement officials in this room and around the country demonstrates a shared and dedicated commitment to preventing and responding more effectively to sexual assault and domestic violence.

Today’s guidance marks a critical step toward helping state and local law enforcement agencies across the country incorporate key principles into clear policies, comprehensive training and effective supervision measures to more effectively protect victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.

These principles include utilizing trauma-informed interview tactics that encourage a victim to participate – replacing prejudiced statements that assume what happened with neutral, open-ended questions to learn what actually occurred.  They advise police officers to adopt a victim-centered approach that addresses the medical, emotional and safety needs of victims, including referrals to appropriate services.  And they urge law enforcement agencies to train their officers in recognizing the potential for abusers to report domestic violence complaints preemptively, portraying themselves as victims rather than perpetrators.

These principles – along with several others outlined in today’s guidance and illustrated with case examples – reflect lessons learned and feedback we heard following investigations into, and settlements reached with, police departments in Missoula, New Orleans and Puerto Rico.  Following each of these cases, an array of stakeholders – from law enforcement leaders, to victims, to civil rights advocates – requested that the Justice Department issue informative and detailed guidance.

Because you – survivors, law enforcement leaders, service providers and advocates – raised your voices; because you led productive conversations about complex challenges; and because you contributed thoughtful and innovative ideas; today we take a significant step toward preventing the crimes of sexual assault and domestic violence that deserve no place in civilized society.  I applaud each of you for your steadfast efforts so far.  I commend you for your leadership on this vital work.  And with great anticipation, I look forward to all that we will achieve together in the days to come.  Thank you.

Updated August 19, 2016