Sexual Violence

We work to improve police and institutional response to violence against women.

The Women’s Law Project works to improve the way the criminal justice system addresses violence against women, and to eradicate victim-blaming biases and discriminatory protocols and practices that prevent women from obtaining, or seeking, justice.

Creating the Philadelphia Model for Rape Investigations by Police Departments

Our work advocating to improve police response to sex crimes began in 1999 when we led the reform of police practice in Philadelphia after an investigative newspaper report revealed that the Philadelphia Police Department (PPD) had failed to adequately investigate thousands of rapes and other sex crimes, and downgrading these cases by filing them in a non-criminal category. Over the course of two decades, approximately 30% of all sexual assault-related complaints were buried this way. An internal audit, initiated by then-Police Commissioner John Timoney, resulted in 681 rape cases, and 1,141 sexual assault cases, being re-opened and investigated.

The Women’s Law Project responded to the crisis by establishing an unprecedented  review of rape and sexual assault complaints at the Philadelphia Police Department’s Special Victims Unit (SVU). Every year for the last 17 years, we join a team of advocates at the police station in Philadelphia and review hundreds of SVU files, including all unfounded rape complaints and a random sample of open cases. We assess the thoroughness and outcome of each investigation, raise questions, and provide feedback.

This case review is now recognized as a national best practice now known as the Philadelphia Model. Currently, we consult with cities across the country to facilitate implementation of the Philadelphia Model. For more information on the Philadelphia Model, see Policy Brief Improving Police Response to Sexual Assault.

Updating the Definition of Rape

While working with the Philadelphia police, we discovered that the definition of rape in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) system was horrifically outdated, and so narrow that it routinely led to inaccurately low estimates of the prevalence of rape and sexual assault in national data. The definition, “the carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will,” had not been updated since 1927. This narrow definition excluded many forms of assault and entire populations of victims, including men. It was also inconsistent with current state crime code definitions, and did not reflect our modern understanding of consent and sexual assault.

We subsequently launched a decade-long campaign for the FBI to update the definition. The new definition, “Penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim,” was announced in 2012 and implemented in 2013.

At the request of the National Academies, the Women’s Law Project, in partnership with AEquitas: The Prosecutors’ Resource on Violence Against Women, undertook a project to examine definitions of rape and other sexual assaults in the legal system and analyze state laws and terminology. We compiled our findings in a report, Rape and Sexual Assault in the Legal System.” This report includes historical background important to understanding how victim-blaming biases have been built into our laws. This historical context influences the way sex crime laws are written by lawmakers and enforced by law enforcement, and in cases arising under those laws, how police decide whether to arrest, how prosecutors decide whether to take the cases to court, and how judges and juries make ultimate decisions as to whether to convict. The system’s response in turn impacts whether victims perceive themselves as crime victims and whether they view the criminal justice system as one that recognizes them as crime victims. One consequence of the system’s negative impact on victims is that it reduces victim reporting to and cooperation with police.

“Rape and Sexual Assault in the Legal System” was presented to the National Research Council of the National Academies Panel on Measuring Rape and Sexual Assault in the Bureau of Justice Statistics Household Surveys Committee on National Statistics on June 5, 2012.

Gender Bias in Policing

We subsequently have worked on the issue of gender bias in policing with the U.S. Department of Justice. In 2015, we worked with the DOJ on the first-ever guidance issued to police that addressed gender bias in policing, “Identifying and Preventing Gender Bias in Law Enforcement Response to Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence.” The guidance was designed to help state, local, and tribal authorities more fairly and effectively address allegations of domestic violence and sexual assault.

For more details on our innovative responses to criminal justice reform and how our local work led to national reform, please see this Policy Brief.