Racial Profiling, Police Misconduct, and Gender

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By Julie Goldscheid, Professor of Law, CUNY School of Law

The End Racial Profiling Act (H.R. 3618) and similar state legislation bring needed attention to racial profiling and its attendant harms.  Heightened attention to discriminatory law enforcement practices presents an opportunity to consider the range of forms police misconduct may take.

Popular understandings of police misconduct typically involve over-enforcement of laws in ways that impact communities based on race.  But police misconduct can involve under-enforcement as well.  Domestic and sexual violence cases often are characterized by lax responses and a failure adequately to respond.  Since domestic and sexual violence disproportionately affect women, under-enforcement has a disproportionate effect based on gender.  Rather than being treated as raising separate issues, these cases should be thought of in tandem, as two ends on a continuum of law enforcement misconduct.

Law enforcement officers historically failed to respond to calls for assistance in cases of domestic violence and sexual assault.  No doubt, much progress has been made in law enforcement’s policies and practices.  Nevertheless, as recent Department of Justice investigations detail, discriminatory practices continue.   Too often, police still fail to take these cases seriously, fail adequately to investigate and respond, and persist in responding to complainants in ways that replicate historic gender-based stereotypes.  The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights recently found the United States to have violated international human rights obligations through inadequate responses to domestic violence that discriminate based on gender.  Under-enforcement of domestic and sexual violence laws often reflect and perpetuate gender discrimination and expose survivors to increased danger.

Advocacy for non-discriminatory and responsive law enforcement practices should address both over- and under-policing.  Concerns about over-enforcement should not excuse law enforcement’s failure to respond to domestic or sexual violence calls when survivors and their families seek law enforcement intervention.  Cases of over- and under-enforcement may be informed by stereotypes and biases based on both race and gender, as well as immigration status, sexual orientation and gender identity.  It may be no coincidence that a number of cases challenging law enforcement’s under-responsiveness to gender violence cases have been brought by women of color.  A more robust understanding of police misconduct should challenge all forms of bias and should insist on an appropriate and even-handed law enforcement response.

Julie Goldscheid is a Professor of Law at CUNY School of Law, where she teaches subjects including contracts, civil procedure, lawyering, and gender equality. She writes and speaks widely about gender equality, with a particular focus on gender-based violence and economic equality.

The views expressed here by our guest blogger do not necessarily reflect those of Rights Working Group.

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