Despite the challenges of 2022, it closed with an important milestone for women’s rights. The European Court of Human Rights issues a groundbreaking decision, taking a bold stand to address officer-perpetrated gender-based violence (GBV).
Officer-perpetrated GBV is a major issue across the globe and yet so often invisible and rarely addressed. In many cases, it is met with a “blue wall of silence,” where police departments protect fellow officers from investigation. This completely undermines the state’s response to GBV and is particularly troubling since many states rely on law enforcement as frontline responders to GBV.
At the very least, the justice system should not be a perpetrator of abuse. We need the equivalent of the “first, do no harm” guiding principle we have for physicians.
The European Court of Human Rights acknowledged this in the Case of A & B v. Georgia. In this case, a woman experienced regular physical and psychological abuse by her former partner, a police officer. He threatened to kill her and her family, repeatedly “flaunted his service pistol,” referred to his “official status as a police officer and strong connections within the police,” and threated to bring false charges against her father and brother if she dared to report the violence.
Nonetheless, over the course of three years, the woman and her family made multiple calls to the police and the woman filed a complaint with various state departments to stop the abuse. However, officers called to investigate interviewed the woman while her former partner was present, mocking and threatening her, and they left together in the same car. Even worse: officers told the woman that “wife-beating was commonplace” and of “not much importance”; and that she should not contact them in the future “without a valid reason or face being fined for wasting police time as they were busy with other, more serious matters.”
In 2014, the former partner tragically shot and killed the woman. Her mother and son brought a case that went before the European Court of Human Rights.
Our Human Rights Clinic at the University of Miami School of Law had the opportunity to collaborate with the European Human Rights Advocacy Center (EHRAC) on this case. We filed an intervention, along with partners, arguing for heightened state responsibility in cases of officer-perpetrated GBV. Officers are uniquely positioned to use their state authority, training, and access to weapons and resources to facilitate abuse in their relationship. Moreover, heightened vigilance by the state is required to prevent impunity and safeguard the justice system’s integrity.
Human rights law has already recognized that officer influence can facilitate GBV in the context of detention and custody. We argued that this also pertains to officers committing private acts of violence within their relationship, which also leverage their official positions. Moreover, human rights law recognizes officers’ particular role and authority with regards to GBV, mandating trainings on professionalism and sensitivity.: Addressing Officer-Perpetrated Gender-Based Violence and Ending the “Blue Wall of Silence”
The European Court of Human Rights agreed. The Court stated that it “expects Member States to be all the more stringent when investigating . . . their own law-enforcement officers for the commission of serious crimes, including domestic violence and violence against women in general, than they are with ordinary offenders, because what is at stake is not only the issue of the individual criminal-law liability of the perpetrators but also the State’s duty to combat any sense of impunity felt by the offenders by virtue of their very office, and maintain public confidence in and respect for the law-enforcement system.” The Court further referred to a “heightened duty to tackle prejudice-motivated crimes.”
The Court awarded damages to the plaintiffs. While it recognized the need for policy measures, it said it was up to the State of Georgia, supervised by the Committee of Ministers, to determine “the exact means to address gaps and “the discriminatory passivity” of law enforcement.
Our Human Rights Clinic has called for:
- A “zero-tolerance policy” for GBV perpetrated by officers
- Internal structures in police departments that:
- Prevent the hiring of individuals with a history of GBV
- Monitor current officers for signs of abuse
- Handle investigation against fellow officers, including the removal of weapons during the investigation
- Enhanced data collection on officer-perpetrated GBV
- Online or anonymous reporting to better protect survivor safety
- Programs supporting officer mental health, including stress managements and confidential crisis counseling.
We have also expanded our analysis of law enforcement responses to GBV in a human rights framework report and case studies focused on Canada and Brazil. The report and case studies address accountability for officer-perpetrated GBV, trauma-informed interactions with survivors, effective investigation of GBV reports, and intersecting discrimination.
As we celebrate another International Women’s Day, let’s take a step closer to addressing GBV, ending state impunity, and ensuring a safe existence for all.