Who’s Watching the Detectives?

Since President Obama took office, the Department of Justice has emerged as a formidable force in holding police accountable. The Department of Justice has initiated 18 investigations into police activities since 2009, including in New Orleans; Seattle; Newark, N.J.; Portland, Ore.; and, of course, in Sanford, Fla., after the tragic shooting death of Trayvon Martin. (Full disclosure: The investigation of the Newark Police Department was triggered by a petition from the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, of which I am executive director.)

This increased oversight is good for the general public, but it’s especially good news for women. Like most injustices, police misconduct disproportionately affects women. And when accountability measures fall short, our vulnerability only increases.

Women too often find themselves at the mercy of police agencies that neglect women’s safety, whether by ignoring women’s allegations of abuse by an officer or making light of crimes reported by women. The dramatic underrepresentation of women in law enforcement (they make up only about 12 percent of local police officers), only exacerbates these problems.

An examination of discipline records against officers reveals just how much women bear the brunt of police misconduct. To stop unfit officers from moving from one department to another, most states can decertify officers who engage in misconduct, curbing mistreatment of women. Studies of decertification both in Florida between 1976 and 1983 and in Missouri in 1999 found that sexual abuse of women was the most frequent reason for decertification in cases involving public, official misconduct. The reluctance of sexual assault victims to report the crimes committed against them makes it even more imperative for states to take officers who engage in misconduct–often repeatedly–off of the streets.

The DOJ’s latest investigation, initiated last week in Missoula, Mont., highlights the desperate need for its heightened focus on police practices. Allegations suggest that the Missoula police failed to investigate reports of sexual assaults against women “because of their gender or in a manner that has a disparate impact on women.” In response, the DOJ has opened a review into 80 reports of rape in Missoula over the last three years.

Investigations into overall police misconduct also shed light on the indignities women regularly suffer. After investigating the New Orleans police, the DOJ reported in 2011 that the department’s culture not only dismisses complaints of violence against women, but encourages officers to disregard those complaints. The DOJ goes further: “We find that in situations where the Department pursues sexual assault complaints, the investigations are seriously deficient, marked by poor victim interviewing skills, missing or inadequate documentation, and minimal efforts to contact witnesses or interrogate suspects.”

The departments singled out by the DOJ, such as New Orleans, undoubtedly deserve the attention. The police handling of the Trayvon Martin case in Florida rightly raised red flags. Yet the problems with policing in America won’t end with these investigations. If anything, these select departments, many among the country’s largest, represent a microcosm. Every state suffers to some degree from a lack of the training, concern and accountability required to protect women. The DOJ’s decision to shine a light on police misconduct puts all police departments on notice. And it provides a beacon for women in search of security.

Take Action: To urge police accountability, you can support one of these groups:

  • The ACLU is the premiere on-the-ground civil liberties organization holding police accountable for violating citizen rights. To support this work, you can donate to the ACLU at www.aclu.org.
  • The National Center for Women and Policing “promotes increasing the numbers of women at all ranks of law enforcement as a strategy to improve police response to violence against women, reduce police brutality and excessive force and strengthen community policing reforms.” You can support their work with a donation to their parent organization, the Feminist Majority Foundation (full disclosure: also Ms.’s publisher).
  • The Police Reform Organizing Project of the NYC-based Urban Justice Center is an example of the many local police watchdog groups around the country. You can support the Justice Center’s work here–and do a Google search to find out if there’s a similar project near you!

Image from Flickr user Null Value via Creative Commons 3.0.


Deborah Jacobs is executive director for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.