News Release

*Free* Reforms improve police responsiveness to gender-based violence: A case study from India

Peer-Reviewed Publication

American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)

Police officers in stations with dedicated women’s help desks are more likely to register cases of violence against women, a large police reform study in India shows. The findings provide insight into how attention to instances of gender-based crimes can be improved among police officers, particularly in patriarchal social systems. Violence against women is a global problem and inadequate police responsiveness to cases of gender-based violence (GBV) factor greatly in its persistence. The ability to report crimes to law enforcement is a crucial step in addressing these issues and is fundamental in protecting women against violence. However, a lack of trust in police and social stigma surrounding GBV can result in the under-reporting of crimes. This, as well as a general unresponsiveness to women’s concerns by police, has resulted in a large gap between the incidence of crime and the rates in which they are formally addressed. As a result, gender-targeted police reforms are often proposed to help curb this growing problem. Here, Sandip Sukhtankar and colleagues present the findings from the largest randomized controlled trial of police reform measures to date (180 police stations serving 23.4 million people), focused on Madhya Pradesh, India – a region with a reputation for deep-rooted patriarchy and widespread violence against women. During the trial, Sukhtankar et al. evaluated the impact of Women’s Help Desks (WHDs), dedicated spaces for women to report crimes in local police stations and staffed by trained officers. According to the authors, the findings were mixed. Although officers in stations with WHDs were more likely to register cases of GBV, particularly in stations where female officers staffed the desks, women were no more likely to report crimes and the arrest rate in gender-based crimes was largely unaffected. Nonetheless, the findings suggest that police responsiveness to GBV can be improved by focusing attention on women’s cases through greater gender representation within the police force. In a related Perspective, Graeme Blair and Nirvikar Jassal discuss the study’s findings in greater detail.

For reporters interested in trends, a November 2021 Science study by Graeme Blair et al. evaluated community policing reform across 6 countries in the Global South, finding that it did not improve trust between citizens and the police, nor did it reduce crime. A February 2021 study, using a large dataset from Chicago, Illinois, provided insight into another widely proposed policing reform: diversification in policing. An October 2021 special issue of Science, “Criminal Injustice,” further explored relevant themes.

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