Roles and responsibilites of police

last updated December 2014

In partnership with UN Women, The Advocates for Human Rights created the following sections for UN Women’s Virtual Knowledge Centre to End Violence against Women and Girls. This section, along with sections addressing other forms of violence against women and girls, may be found under Legislation at

Roles and responsibilities of police

·         Legislation should provide that the responding officers shall provide the survivor with free-of-charge transport to medical facilities if needed or requested.

·         Legislation should require police to conduct a complete investigation and complete detailed reports of sexual assaults in all cases for the record and for prosecution.

Example: In Austin, Texas, United States, and other US cities, sexual assault victims have the option to use a pseudonym on on medical and legal documents associated with the case. This “blind reporting” provides information to the police without recording a victim’s identity or other identifying details. This not only protects victims from the many adverse effects of becoming known to be a victim of sexual assault (shame, abandonment, economic consequences) but it provides police with suspect descriptions, crime locations, victim demographics, and suspect mode of operations, possibly enabling them to link other assaults to the same perpetrator. The victim has the option at any time to participate in a full investigation. See: Human Rights Watch, Improving Police Response to Sexual Assault (2013). Available in English.

·         Police should be required to make reports available to survivors. Reports aid survivors in pursuing protection orders, civil remedies, immigration petitions, insurance benefits, and compensation claims. (See: National Advisory Council on Violence Against Women and the Violence Against Women Office, The Toolkit to End Violence Against Women.

·         Legislation should state that police must develop protocols for survivor interview and medical testing in order that the survivor may be questioned and examined in a confidential, respectful and timely manner for successful evidence use at trial. (See: Model Strategies, 8(b) p. 41, UN Handbook 3.8.)

·         Legislation should require that police coordinate with prosecutors, medical support services, survivor support groups and advocacy agencies. (See: UN Handbook, 3.2.4; and Violence Against Women in Melanesia and East Timor: A Review of International Lessons, Ch. 5.)

Example: The Rape Victim Assistance and Protection Act (1998) of Philippines states that:

Upon receipt by the police of the complaint for rape, it shall be the duty of the police officer to:(a) Immediately refer the case to the prosecutor for inquest/investigation if the accused is detained; otherwise, the rules of court shall apply; (b) Arrange for counselling and medical services for the offended party; and (c) Immediately make a report on the action taken. Section 4

·         Legislation should provide that police refer victims to coordinated sexual assault response teams or programs to give survivors a broad range of necessary care and services (legal, medical, and social services) and to increase the likelihood that the assault can be successfully prosecuted. (See the section on Survivor Services, below. See also: Sexual Assault Response Teams, The Advocates for Human Rights, website)

·         Legislation should require that police receive training on a regular basis on the latest information about sexual assault survivors and the most respectful methods of handling trauma survivors. (See: "Sexual assault: key issues," Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, Vol. 100 (2007). The lack of police training can contribute to low rates of reporting. See: Africa for Women’s Rights: Ratify and Respect! Dossier of Claims (2010).)

·         Legislation should provide for the application of pro-arrest and pro-prosecution policies in cases of sexual assault where there is probable cause that the crime has occurred. (See: UN Handbook, 3.8.3.)

·         Legislation should mandate specialized police units with specialized training on sexual assault response and investigation. All-women sexual assault investigative teams and police stations with dedicated rooms should be available so that the survivor of a sexual assault is comfortable in speaking to police. (See: Model Strategies p. 41 and National Advisory Council on Violence Against Women and the Violence Against Women Office, The Toolkit to End Violence Against Women.)

Example: in Toronto, Ontario, in Canada, police must receive specialized training and accreditation to handle sexual offences. The specially-accredited officers conduct all in-depth interviews with victims. The department’s website explains: “All sexual assault occurrences are assigned to those who are qualified in the area of sexual assault investigation. These officers have the training, desire, and dedication to investigate these difficult cases to their fullest.”

However, it is important to note that specialized police units, although generally credited with increasing reports of sexual assault and the likelihood that victims will receive services, cannot be effective unless each member of the team, whether woman or man, receives specialized training on a victim-centered response. In addition, the unit must receive adequate funding and resources such as computers and vehicles in order to do its job well. Finally, the units must be an integral part of a comprehensive police response- not marginalized or undermined by other police or justice system professionals. A “mainstreaming” approach to the police response to sexual assault victims can also be an effective response. See: Morrison Addressing Gender-Based Violence in the Latin Americas and Caribbean Region: A Critical Review of Interventions (2004). Available in English.


Sierra Leone: The Sierra Leone police have established Family Support Units (FSUs) in police stations throughout the country. The FSUs are comprised of police who have been trained to work with victims of sexual violence. They provide sensitive and appropriate assistance to victims, refer them to cost-free medical care and legal services, and educate the public on all areas of gender-based violence. Since the inception of FSUs, reports of sexual violence have increased in Sierra Leone, and a UNICEF assessment found that the stigma associated with sexual exploitation and abuse has been reduced. See: Women Building Peace and Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict-Affected Contexts: A Review of Community-Based Approaches (2007), p. 11.

Philippines: The Rape Victim Assistance and Protection Act (1998) of Philippines states that:

It shall be the duty of the police officer or the examining physician, who must be of the same gender as the offended party, to ensure that only persons expressly authorized by the offended party shall be allowed inside the room where the investigation or medical or physical examination is being conducted.

For this purpose, a women’s desk must be established in every police precinct throughout the country to provide a police woman to conduct investigation of complaints of women rape victims. Section 4 (c)

·         Legislation should mandate the dedication of resources to police for investigation of sexual assault cases.

See: CASE STUDY: Human Rights Watch Report: Testing Justice: The Rape Kit Backlog in Los Angeles City and County, above.

·         Legislation should mandate that police response to sexual assault cases, and the number of cases which are prosecuted, be reviewed by an independent task force to take note of compliance with established procedures and of offender accountability statistics. See Model Strategies, 8(e) p.44.

·         Legislation should provide sanctions for officers who fail to provide an adequate response to sexual assault cases.

The Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs has developed recommendations (PDF, 22 pages) for official responses to sexual assault that includes guidelines on montoring the implementation of the protocol.

Women's Justice Centre,"Form for Evaluating Police Response to Rape and Sexual Assault," a form for victims to evaluate the police response. Available in English and Spanish.

See: Protocols and Polices, StopVAW, The Advocates for Human Rights.

Case Study:

Capitol Offense: Police Mishandling of Sexual Assault Cases in the United States District of Columbia

In 2013, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report on the police response to sexual assault in the District of Columbia, United States. The report stated that although an estimated one in five women in the United States is a victim of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime, only 16 percent of all rapes are reported to law enforcement. It found that the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) in Washington, District of Columbia, frequently closed cases without pursuing an adequate investigation. MPD officers did not document or report many cases and classified a number of other serious sexual assaults in ways that precluded investigation or minimized the assault. The report found that officers were likely to disregard cases involving the use of drugs or alcohol. The authors stated, “This practice suggests a lack of understanding or sensitivity among some MPD detectives to the fact that sexual assaults frequently occur at times when the victim has consumed substances such as alcohol or drugs. The victim’s consumption of such substances – or the victim’s confusion or inability to recall some events surrounding the assault - should not be a reason to automatically dismiss a case.” (p. 10) Other cases were sent to prosecutors with incomplete investigations, with the result that prosecutors labeled them “weak” and closed them. Numerous examples of police mistreatment of victims were cited, including threatening victims with prosecution if they were found to be lying, requiring victims to give long, detailed interviews while traumatized, asking inappropriate or blaming questions, discouraging victims from undergoing a forensic exam, and failing to respond to victims who called seeking information or because their assailant was threatening them. (p.15).

HRW compared the response of four other US cities to sexual assault cases and determined that the MPD should incorporate a number of effective approaches to sexual assault cases, including:

·         Showing sensitivity to trauma-induced issues during the interview;

·         Allowing the victim time to obtain rest before completing an in-depth interview;

·         Referring the victim to support services;

·         Allowing an advocate to accompany a victim during police interviews; and

·         Obtaining specialized training on handling sexual assault cases.

HRW issued recommendations to all levels of the US government and 24 recommendations to the MDP on treating victims fairly and improving accountability for police response to sexual assault cases.

Human Rights Watch, Capital Offense: Police Mishandling of Sexual Assault Cases in the District of Columbia (2013). Available in English.

In addition, HRW issued a supplement to the report entitled Improving Police Response to Sexual Assault.The supplement proposed a victim-centered approach to sexual assault cases and stated that the changes, highlighted below, do not require an increase in budget for police; only a top-down commitment to culture change.

It emphasized the following:

·         A fair and compassionate attitude towards victims on the part of police;

·         A brief first interview and a more detailed interview at a later date to allow a traumatized victim the opportunity to rest and retrieve memories of the assault;

·         Private, compassionate, and non-judgmental interview

·         Trained interviewers on the dynamics of sexual assault and elements of sexual assault offenses

·         Continued contact with the victim on case updates and to answer questions

·         Referrals to advocates, counselors and community resources

The supplement described concrete methods of increasing police accountability to ensure that sexual assault investigations have been handled appropriately. They include:

·         Requiring all reports to be put into writing and assigned a tracking number;

·         Reviewing call logs to ensure reports are written;

·         Reviewing caseloads to ensure that investigators do not have disproportionate numbers of unfounded cases- cases where a victim ends cooperation, or cases which are classified as non-crimes or other misuses of police codes;

·         Promptly responding to victims’ complaints against officers; and

·         Removing officers who do not meet expectations.

For a video entitled US: DC Police Fail Rape Victims, click here.

Roles and responsibilities of prosecutors

·         Legislation should include pro-prosecution polices in cases of sexual assault.

·         Legislation should require prosecutor protocols that allow for prosecution of offenders in the absence of the survivor.

·         Legislation should require prosecutor training in the use of physical evidence, expert witnesses and other trial strategies to strengthen cases in which a victim is unavailable to testify or if issues such as delayed reporting, inconsistent reports, or recantation are present.

·         Legislation should require prosecutors to carefully consider all factors underlying a survivor’s hesitation or decision not to testify, including cultural and religious beliefs, before forcing a survivor to testify.

·         Legislation should prohibit prosecutors from prosecuting minor victims for alcohol use or any victim for use of recreational drugs in connection with the sexual assault. This will ease victim concerns in reporting sexual assault.

·         Legislation should require prosecutors to receive training on the nature and impact of sexual assault, harassment and stalking, factors that may affect a survivor’s willingness or ability to participate in a prosecution, and effective prosecution strategies and approaches that support victim safety. The lack of prosecutor training can contribute to low rates of reporting and prosecution. (See: Africa for Women’s Rights: Ratify and Respect! Dossier of Claims (2010))

·         Legislation should require prosecutors to consider victim impact statements in all cases of sexual assault. Example: The Sexual Offenses Act of Kenya (2006) requires that victim impact statements be considered in sentencing. Art. 33(b).

Example: The Rome Statute and the ICC Rules of Procedure and Evidence were the first international criminal law provisions to permit extensive direct participation of victims in court proceedings. If not called to testify in a proceeding, victims may still participate through a designated representative. Article 68, Rome Statute and Rules 89-83 of the Rules of Procedure and Evidence.

·         Legislation should require prosecutors to inform survivors of all aspects of the prosecution of the case, including details about specific times and dates for hearings.

·         Legislation should require prosecutors to inform survivors of available support and protection mechanisms.

Examples: The Sexual Offenses Act of Kenya (2006) §§ 31-36 and The Witness Protection (Amendment) Act of 2010 of Kenya, § 6.3 provide a number of protection measures.

·         Legislation should require prosecutors to inform survivors of opportunities to obtain restitution and compensation. See section on Restitution and compensation for survivors, below.

·         Legislation should require prosecutors who drop cases of sexual assault to explain to the survivor why the case was dropped. (See section on Rights of Survivors, below.)

·         When prosecutors decline to prosecute, legislation should require prosecutors to provide information to survivors about civil remedies such as protective orders.

Example: A 2009 Minnesota, USA law on victim notification states:

…c) Whenever a prosecutor notifies a victim of domestic assault, criminal sexual conduct, or harassment under this section, the prosecutor shall also inform the victim of the method and benefits of seeking an order for protection […]or a restraining order […] and that the victim may seek an order without paying a fee. §611A.0315 1(c).

·         Legislation should require prosecutors to avoid delays in completing the trial of the offender.

See: UN Handbook, 3.8.2 and 3.8.3; National Advisory Council on Violence Against Women and the Violence Against Women Office, The Toolkit to End Violence Against Women; and Prosecutor Protocols, StopVAW, The Advocates for Human Rights.

Governor’s Commission on Domestic and Sexual Violence and Office of the Attorney General, State of New Hampshire, United States, A Model Protocol for Response to Adult Sexual Assault Cases (2012) provides a victim-centered and collaborative approach. Available in English.

For a detailed checklist to monitor the response of a prosecutorial system to victims of sexual assault, see the Center for Sex Offender Management, The Comprehensive Assessment Protocol, a Systemwide Review of Adult and Juvenile Sex Offender Management Strategies. The Protocol’s section on Pre Trial Management includes excellent questions to assess risk or lethality in determining whether to release offenders. Available in English.

See the Liberian Ministry of Justice, Sexual Assault and Prosecution Handbook. Available in English.

AEquitas, The Prosecutor’s Resource on Violence Against Women, a US-based website for prosecutors and allied professionals, published Long, Wilkinson, and Kays, 10 Strategies for Prosecuting Child Sexual Abuse at the Hands of a Family Member. Available in English.