SHSU to Study Houston Police Response to Sexual Assault, Domestic Violence Victims

Three researchers at Sam Houston State University will evaluate a new training initiative by the Houston Police Department designed to improve response to sexual assault and domestic violence victims.

Drs. Cortney Franklin, Leana Bouffard, and William Wells received a nearly $400,000 grant from the Office of Violence Against Women (OVW) at the U.S. Department of Justice to study the effectiveness of training, which is aimed at reducing gender bias in police responses to these crimes. The training will be provided to all 5,300 sworn police personnel between September, 2016 and August 2017, and the evaluation of police and victims will be undertaken at every step in the process, including before, during, and after the training.

“The crimes of sexual assault and domestic violence have received significant attention as they happen with frequency, have been met with opposition, stigma and skepticism by criminal justice practitioners, and have long-term negative mental and physical health consequences for survivors,” said Dr. Franklin, an Associate Professor in the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology and the principal investigator on the study. “The purpose of this training is to reduce gender bias that has produced adverse outcome for survivors, inhibited offender accountability, and facilitated case attrition for sexual and domestic violence. We are excited about this training because it has the potential to fundamentally change the way first responders interface with victims.”

In 2015, the Department of Justice issued new guidelines for investigations of sexual assault and domestic violence cases, including clear policies and procedures for agencies, training for officers, and accountability protocols for supervisors. As part of that initiative, Houston Police will be trained to better identify existing bias toward victims and to recognize the neurobiology of trauma, which affects the way a victim may recount the experience.

Gender bias in policing is a form of discrimination where officers may provide less protection to victims based on gender, fail to respond to crimes that affect specific gender groups, or offer less robust services based on gender stereotypes. In sexual assault or domestic violence cases, this may include underreporting or misclassifying these cases, neglecting to test sexual assault kits, interrogating victims and witnesses, treating domestic violence as a family matter, failing to enforce protective orders, or failing to treat same-sex violence as a crime. This could impact the investigation and prosecution of these crimes.

According to the NIJ recommendations, law enforcement officers should:

  • Recognize and address bias about victims
  • Treat victims with respect and encourage victims to participate in investigation
  • Investigate domestic violence complaints thoroughly and effectively
  • Classify reports of sexual assault or domestic violence properly
  • Refer victims to appropriate services
  • Identify the assailant in domestic violence cases
  • Hold officers who commit sexual assault or domestic violence accountable
  • Maintain and review data on sexual assault and domestic violence

“The more we identify approaches and models that effectively work with specific populations, the more effective we can be in helping victims find the justice they need and deserve,” said Dr. Bea Hanson, Principal Deputy Director for the OVW.

The Sam Houston State University study will include surveys of participating officers to measure changes in knowledge, attitudes, and behavior toward victims and well as a review of 150 sexual assault and domestic violence cases both before and after training to assess any change in initial responses to victims. The report will be shared with law enforcement agencies as well as with key stakeholders, such as SANE nurses, rape advocacy centers, and domestic violence shelter personnel to help open dialogue on how to better serve victims.

Member of The Texas State University System