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Gender Bias in Policing: Will Sessions Continue Progress?

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On January 12, 2017, the United States Department of Justice and the City of Baltimore adopted a settlement agreement, known as a consent decree, governing changes to policing in Baltimore.  On February 2, 2017, representatives from the Department of Justice and Baltimore City officials assured U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar that they remain committed to enforcing that agreement.  But will Attorney General nominee Senator Jeff Sessions commit to the consent decree’s enforcement?

The consent decree was the culmination of a Department of Justice investigation into the Baltimore City Police Department, an investigation triggered by the death of Freddie Gray in police custody in April 2015 and the uprisings that followed.

The investigation was wide-ranging, looking not just at police misuse of force, but a number of other deficits in policing alleged by the citizens of Baltimore.  Included in those complaints was the contention that Baltimore City Police engaged in gender biased policing.

The Department of Justice ultimately found evidence of gender bias in the Baltimore City Police Department’s handling of sexual assault cases: in the treatment of victims of sexual assault, particularly transgender victims, and in the failure to adequately investigate reports of sexual assault, including the failure to routinely request testing of rape kits.

In December 2015, the Department of Justice issued guidelines to help law enforcement identify and prevent gender bias when responding to sexual assault and domestic violence.  The guidelines suggest that police departments provide:

  • training and review and revise policies to ensure that police gather evidence in an unbiased manner;
  • that police treat victims with respect and conduct interviews in a manner that encourages victims to participate;
  • that police investigate sexual assault and domestic violence claims thoroughly and effectively and appropriately classify reports of sexual assault and domestic violence;
  • that police departments collect and use data regarding sexual assault and domestic violence to inform their policing;
  • and that police departments hold officers who commit sexual assault or domestic violence accountable for their actions.

The Department of Justice has investigated gender biased policing in a number of police departments.  In Puerto Rico, the Department of Justice found that police officers who committed intimate partner violence were permitted to continue to work, in some cases despite multiple arrests.  The Department of Justice found that sexual assault cases were routinely mishandled in New Orleans, Puerto Rico, and Missoula, Montana, and entered into consent decrees in each of those jurisdictions which required police to adopt policies and practices based on the guidelines.

Similarly, the Baltimore consent decree requires that the police adopt a trauma-informed, victim-centered, multi-disciplinary response to sexual assault cases, including training for detectives, thorough investigation of reports of sexual assault, and enhanced data collection, analysis and reporting.

Senator Session’s views on sexual assault became the subject of public scrutiny when Sessions told a reporter that although President Donald Trump’s boast about grabbing women’s genitals without consent involved “improper language,” Sessions would not characterize such actions as sexual assault, calling the characterization “a stretch.”  In his confirmation hearings, however, Sessions told Senator Patrick Leahy that such an act would “clearly” be sexual assault.  At best, there is reason to be concerned about Sessions’ understanding of sexual assault and his willingness to commit the Department of Justice to continued monitoring of police handling of such claims.  Moreover, Sessions has been noncommittal about his willingness to support legislation addressing violence against women.  Sessions voted against the 2013 version of the Violence Against Women Act and stated that he would defend the Act only if he considered it “reasonably defensible” during his Senate confirmation hearings.

Moreover, according to media reports, Senator Sessions has been critical of consent decrees like the one entered in Baltimore.  In his confirmation hearings, Senator Sessions would not commit to continued enforcement of the consent decrees if police show improvement short of full compliance.

President Trump is reported to have been “taken aback by the waste of money” required by federal monitoring of consent decrees.  Police unions in some cities (although not currently in Baltimore) are eager to renegotiate the consent decrees and believe that those efforts will be well-received by the Department of Justice under Sessions (although modification of the decrees would ultimately require approval from the federal courts overseeing them).

All of this raises concerns about Senator Sessions’ commitment to improving the quality of policing in cases of sexual assault and intimate partner violence.  There is reason to wonder whether the Department of Justice will continue to investigate and seek to remedy gender biased policing under the current administration.  Victims of sexual assault in Baltimore will simply have to wait and see whether the Department of Justice continues to push for needed police reforms.

– Leigh Goodmark, Professor, University of Maryland Carey School of Law

Photo by Thomas Hawk