The Intersection of Interpersonal and State Violence Against Women
By Lisa Fedina | June 26, 2018
The problem of police brutality in the U.S. has largely and rightfully highlighted police killings of unarmed Black men. Still, when police violence against women can be connected to women’s personal experiences with intimate partner violence and sexual violence, researchers helping craft policy must work toward a comprehensive understanding of both men’s and women’s experiences with law enforcement.
Police brutality is not a new phenomenon. Researchers, scholars, and activists such as Andrea Ritchie, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and Hillary Potter and grassroots movements like #SayHerName and INCITE! have long described and documented the problem of police brutality – specifically, police brutality against women and trans women of color. The #SayHerName brief documents cases in which women call police to report intimate partner or sexual violence, only to be met with inadequate, harmful, and abusive law enforcement responses. INCITE! has explained how police violence and intimate partner violence intersect in the lives of women of color, including women of color who are trans, bisexual or lesbian, immigrant, undocumented, living on tribal land, have prior criminal convictions, or are involved in sex work.
Very little empirical research on these intersections in police violence against women has been conducted. To address this need, we conducted the Survey of Police Public Encounters (SPPE), a cross-sectional study aimed at describing the prevalence, nature, and mental health implications of police violence using a general population sample. SPPE was administered online to adult residents in Baltimore City, New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. using Qualtrics Online Panels – a demographically representative sampling service (N = 1,615).
Our study measured lifetime exposures to police violence across four domains: physical violence, sexual
violence, psychological violence, and neglect (times when the respondent called for police, but police did not respond or were late in responding; see DeVylder et al. (2016) for more detail on the study’s measures and psychometric properties). The results, published in Preventive Medicine (January 2018), show that a substantial proportion of women in these four U.S. cities have experienced at least one form of police violence or neglect in their lifetimes.
Race and ethnicity was significantly associated with all forms of police violence. Latina women reported significantly higher rates of all forms of police violence and neglect, followed by Black women and White non-Hispanic women. Sexual minority women (i.e., lesbian/gay/bisexual) and younger women had higher rates of sexual police violence exposure than did heterosexual women and older women. Women with lower levels of income had higher rates of psychological police violence. And women with both lower levels of income and education reported higher levels of police neglect.
The correlations between various forms of police violence and income, education, race, and sexual orientation suggests that these aspects of social location and, specifically, marginalization disproportionately subject women of color, economically disadvantaged women, and sexual minority women to police violence, abuse of power, and police non-protection. Although our study found the highest rates of police violence among Latina women, very little data is available to help us tease out the causes behind this inequality. One study, by LatinoJustice, found that the majority of Latinos in the U.S. are seriously concerned about their safety in the hands of police and believe they are mistreated by police in ways similar to African-Americans. Our study affirms that, at least among Latina women, such concerns are well-founded. A prior entry in Gender Policy Report describes how the current administration’s anti-immigration and “tough on crime” actions harms Latina women survivors of intimate partner and sexual violence. More research is needed, but experiences of police violence in Latinx communities likely intersect with ethnic identity and immigration status.
Women with histories of intimate partner violence and non-partner sexual violence were, in our study of urban respondents, more than twice as likely to experience most forms of police violence, even after adjusting for other factors. Given the documented problem of gender bias (e.g., myths, assumptions,
stereotypes) in policing of these cases, we had expected this result. Further, while it is possible that intimate partner and sexual violence victims are more likely to come into contact with police (necessarily leading to increased risk for police violence exposure), we controlled for other factors likely to increase police contact (i.e., histories of mental illness and criminal involvement) and prior research has documented the ways in which survivors have been met with neglectful, harmful, or abusive police responses, including women who had mental illness or substance abuse histories, lower incomes, and women of color (see Cuevas & Sabina, 2010; Potter, in Garcia and Clifford, 2010; Richie, 1996).
Our findings highlight the importance of creating policy that addresses police violence and its disparate impact on African American and Latino communities, including women of color. In the #SayHerName brief, recommendations are provided for creating gender-specific and inclusive policy to address police brutality against women of color, transgender, and gender non-conforming women, such as implementing and enforcing zero tolerance policies for sexual harassment and assault by police against civilians. Policing reform must also address the intersection of police violence and interpersonal violence in the lives of women of color, trans women, and women of other marginalized social locations.
The U.S. Department of Justice has previously documented the long-standing problem of gender bias in policing of interpersonal violence and sexual assault cases, and has issued guidance on improving police responses to victims. We must get more specific, however, if we are to prevent implicit and explicit bias in policing which may intensify the harm attending police responses to these victims. Tailoring departments’ policies by considering the agency’s history and relationship with the community, departmental climate, and resource needs is possible. The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) and End Violence Against Women International (EVAWI) are currently implementing such approaches by including agency assessments and self-assessments, training and technical assistance, and coordinated community responses to intimate partner violence and sexual assault, with promise for improving police responses to the most marginalized victims.