NEW YORK (AP) — The U.S. Justice Department has launched a probe of the New York Police Department unit that investigates sex crimes following years of complaints about the way it treats crime victims.
The civil rights investigation announced Thursday will review the department’s Special Victims Division to examine whether it engages in a pattern of gender-biased policing, officials said.
“Survivors of sexual assault should expect effective, trauma-informed and victim-centered investigations by police departments,” said Kristen Clarke, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. New York City’s two U.S. attorneys joined her in announcing the probe.
The investigation of the police unit, portrayed in fictional form on TV’s “Law & Order: SVU,” comes after a decade of complaints about staff being stretched too thin, and reports by some women that their sexual assault reports weren’t thoroughly investigated.
In one 2019 lawsuit, a woman alleged detectives shrugged off her report of being raped by someone she’d been involved with, logging it as a “dispute” instead of a sex crime. Another woman said in the suit that her account of being kidnapped and gang-raped was grossly mishandled by a detective for months before she was told the case was “too complex” to investigate.
After the lawsuit and a leadership shakeup, the NYPD pledged to change its ways. But victims say the promised reforms haven’t arrived.
“We hope the Justice Department’s investigation and our lawsuit will finally result in real change for victims and survivors of sexual assault in New York City,” said the women’s lawyer, Mariann Wang.
The NYPD said in a written statement that it welcomes the review and is committed to improving the quality of its investigations.
“Our goal is for SVD to be the national model,” Police Commissioner Keechant Sewell said in a statement. “I believe any constructive review of our practices in the Special Victims Division will show that the NYPD has been evolving and improving in this area but we will be transparent and open to criticism as well as ideas in the process.”
Justice Department officials said the probe will include a comprehensive review of the police department’s policies, procedures and training for investigations of sexual assault crimes by the unit — including how it interacts with survivors and witnesses, and how it collects evidence and completes investigations.
They said they also want to see what steps the police department has taken to address deficiencies in its handling of sexual assault crimes, including its staffing and the services and support it offers sexual assault survivors.
Breon Peace, the U.S. attorney in Brooklyn, said the NYPD has already taken steps to address concerns, but authorities want to ensure sex assault victims are treated fairly in the future.
After the 2019 lawsuit, the NYPD appointed a woman, Judith Harrison, to lead the embattled division and shifted to what she called a “victim-centered” approach — but she moved to a different position within two years.
In 2020, the department appointed Michael King, a veteran investigator and forensic nurse, to the post. But King was removed from the job in February, amid complaints about his leadership and the division’s continued mishandling of cases.
Last October, a woman who identified herself as Christine told a City Council hearing that detectives made fundamental mistakes in investigating her rape.
She said they failed to interview witnesses or collect security camera footage from the bar where she’d been before the attack.
Instead, she said, they wanted to set up a “traumatizing, controlled phone call with the man who raped me,” failed to test for date-rape drugs and closed the case twice without telling her.
In another case, detailed in a 2020 article in The New York Times, a New York University student said a sex crimes detective openly doubted her allegation that she had been raped by a stranger in her apartment, talked her out of moving forward and shut down the case.
The suspected rapist, identified through fingerprints on a condom wrapper found at the apartment, was later jailed on burglary charges — but ended up being released and assaulting three more women because the special victims division never told prosecutors he was a rape suspect, the Times reported.
The special victims division has also been under scrutiny, including from the NYPD’s internal affairs bureau, for allegedly mishandling rape kits and investigators allegedly shortchanging the department on hours worked.
Damian Williams, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, said sex crimes victims “deserve the same rigorous and unbiased investigations of their cases that the NYPD affords to other categories of crime.”
“Likewise,” he added, “relentless and effective pursuit of perpetrators of sexual violence, unburdened by gender stereotypes or differential treatment, is essential to public safety.”