Victim-Centered Investigations

The Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) Office and Police Executive Research Forum recently released a report on Identifying an Preventing Gender Bias in Law Enforcement Response to Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence.

The report’s goals are well intentioned: examine how gender bias can undermine law enforcement agencies’ (LEAs’) response to sexual assault and domestic violence.  In fact, several of the proposed policies, should be made part of the law enforcement response, such as training officers to incorporate the complainant’s actual words in the officer’s summary.  However, other provisions will likely lead to unintended consequences and investigations that turn police into advocates for one party.

The Department of Justice Report uses terminology which makes the proposed policies seem benign and logical.  The report asserts that police and law enforcement officials have biases against women and LGBT communities which can affect the manner in which sexual assault and domestic violence cases are investigated and ultimately disposed.  To correct those suggested biases, the report suggests changes in the mindset of leadership, referral of complainants to appropriate services, data collection, and respect for the complainant during interviews.

Upon closer inspection, the report recommends that police use a victim-centered approach when investigating sexual assault cases.  The report suggests that complainants attribute low reporting to negative interactions with police.  As such, advocates for the victim centered approach indicate that it “gives control over the process back to the victim.”  The victim centered approach instructs investigators to not question, or make comments that doubt, the credibility of the complainant.  The problem with such a decision is that it presumes there is in fact a victim in each case.  Whether someone is a victim is a conclusion to be reached at the end of a fair process, not an assumption to be made at the beginning.

Given this distinction, there is a huge difference between allowing the complainants to feel comfortable when approaching law enforcement personnel and giving them control over the process.  Law enforcement have a job to do.  They are not responsible for providing complainants with counseling, but are tasking with conducting an impartial investigation into criminal activity.

Editorialists have criticized the “victim-centered” approach because:

  • It “destroys the public’s confidence in the system and willingness to believe actual rape victims.” –Christine Damon
  • It “is attempting to turn a neutral institution – its campus police – into an advocate for one party.” –Editors of College Fix
  • It is “an attempt to railroad accused students while looking impartial.” – Ashe Schow

Press Releases:

  1. December 19: Arizona Governor Rejects ‘Start By Believing,’ Calls on Prosecutors to Assure Impartial Investigations