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Gender and racial stereotypes derail rape investigations, attorney general says

Attorney General Loretta Lynch says that gender stereotypes impede justice. (AP file photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Four days after an Oklahoma police officer was found guilty of serial rape, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced the Department of Justice’s new guidelines for authorities handling sexual assault cases in their communities and within their departments.

The report, released Tuesday, calls for law enforcement agencies to fight gender bias in their responses to sexual assault and domestic violence with clear policies and updated training.

Lynch said officers across the country too often make snap judgments about women who report rape: She’s drunk. She’s an unreliable narrator. She’s just embarrassed by her actions.

“These assumptions,” Lynch said, “can send the case into a spiral of ineffectiveness, and the victim back into a spiral of despair and pain.”

‘I was so afraid': Ex-Oklahoma City cop’s victims speak out after rape convictions

While the guidance is nonbinding, it offers the Justice Department's best practices for local law enforcement. It instructs officers to treat victims with respect, thoroughly investigate each complaint, test all rape kits and maintain data on the cases. It also directs officers to to ask victims open-ended questions to learn what happened, rather than defaulting to: How drunk were you? Local departments also must hold accountable officers who commit domestic violence and sexual assault, the federal agency said.

“Acting on stereotypes about why women or LGBT individuals are sexually assaulted, or about how a victim of domestic violence or sexual assault should look or behave,” the document states, “can constitute unlawful discrimination and profoundly undermine an effective response to these  crimes.”

The new standards come as outrage erupts over the months-long crime spree of Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw. His case highlights how predators wield damaging stereotypes to their advantage, prosecutor Lori McConnell argued this week.

Holtzclaw, who is half-Japanese and half-white, targeted only black women, some with criminal records, in low-income neighborhoods. He pulled them over, followed them home and forced them into sexual acts.

“He counted on the fact no one would believe them and no one would care,” McConnell said.

Holtzclaw was accused of 36 counts of abuse against 13 women and was convicted of 18 of those crimes Thursday. He faces up to 263 years in jail.

He’s not an anomaly in law enforcement, data shows. The Associated Press reported that about 1,000 officers lost their badges from 2009 to 2014 for sexual assault and misconduct. Since nine states declined to release data, the number is likely a conservative estimate. (Holtzclaw was not included in the AP analysis.)

Sexual assault and domestic violence remain pervasive in the United States. Nearly one in five women have endured rape, according to the latest DOJ statistics. About one in four women and one in seven men have suffered physical violence in a romantic relationship.

After Lynch’s announcement Tuesday, Carol Tracy, executive director of the women’s law project, said racial considerations should also shape policy conversations about gender bias in policing.

“This gender bias is exacerbated when racial bias is added to it,” she said. “Where bias is explicit, and it is explicit throughout this country, it has to be rooted out... Rape victims are profiled as liars, from campus to Cosby.”

Ronald Davis, director of the Justice Department's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, said quashing stereotypes is essential to securing justice. The former chief of police in East Palo Alto, Calif., wondered how his own past actions may have hurt victims.

“What did I miss? Which stereotypes did I have?” Davis said Tuesday at an agency conference. “What judgement calls did I make, and how counterproductive were they?”

He encouraged other police officers to ask themselves the same questions.