NEW YORK ( Associated Press) – The U.S. Department of Justice has launched a comprehensive investigation into the New York Police Department’s notorious sex crime investigators after years of complaints about the way they treat crime victims.
The civil rights inquiry, announced Thursday, will examine whether the NYPD’s Special Victims Division is involved 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 have joined her in announcing the investigation.
The police unit inspired TV’s “Law & Order: SVU” and the actual version tackled such big issues as the prosecution of former film magnate Harvey Weinstein. But the division has also faced a decade of complaints about thin staff and superficial investigations.
In a 2019 lawsuit, a woman alleged detectives shook off her report of rape by someone she was involved with and recorded it as a “dispute” instead of a sex crime. Another woman in the lawsuit said her report of kidnapping and gang rape had been severely abused for months before she was told the case was “too complex” to investigate.
After the lawsuit and a leadership change, the NYPD promised change. But victims’ lawyers say it did not happen.
“We hope the Department of Justice’s investigation and our lawsuit will eventually lead to real change for victims and survivors of sexual assault in New York City,” said women’s attorney Mariann Wang.
The NYPD said it welcomed the review and was committed to improving its investigations.
Police Commissioner Keechant Sewell said she believed any “constructive” review would “show that the NYPD has developed and improved in this area, but we will be transparent and open to criticism as well as ideas.”
Mayor Eric Adams, a retired police captain who took office in January and appointed Sewell, said she immediately took steps to make sure the unit was “professional”.
“We did not sit on our hands,” the Democrat said.
Breon Peace, the American lawyer in Brooklyn, said the NYPD has already taken steps to address concerns, but the authorities want to ensure that victims are treated fairly in the future.
Justice Department officials said they plan a comprehensive review of policies, procedures and training for the Special Victims Division’s investigations into sexual assault – including how police deal with survivors and witnesses, gather evidence and complete investigations.
Officials also want to see what steps the police department has taken to rectify shortcomings, including the unit’s staff and its services for survivors of sexual assault.
The Weinstein case brought the sex crimes department to attention, which helped set up a prosecution that ended with a watershed conviction for the #MeToo movement. But along the way, prosecutors dropped one of the charges in 2018, after evidence surfaced that a detective had coached a witness and told an accuser to remove material from her cell phone.
An attorney for the woman whose allegation was dropped from the case blamed prosecutors for what happened. She said Thursday she welcomes light on police practices and offers a mixed view of the police’s sex crime unit.
“Our experience is that many viable sexual assault cases are thrown out by the police in the earliest stages of investigation,” said attorney Carrie Goldberg. “On the other hand, some of the most persistent sexual assault prosecutions in recent history – for example, those of Harvey Weinstein – have been driven by the persistence of dedicated NYPD investigators.”
Following the lawsuit in 2019, the unit found a new leader, Judith Harrison, and switched to what she called a “victim-centered” approach – but she soon moved to another position.
The successor, Michael King, who was appointed in 2020, was a veteran investigator and forensic nurse. King was removed from office in February amid complaints about his leadership and continued mismanagement of affairs.
Last October, a woman who identified herself as a rape victim told a City Council hearing that detectives had failed to interview witnesses, collect security camera footage from the bar where she was before the attack, or test for drug rapes. She said they closed the case twice without telling her.
In another case, set out in a 2020 article in The New York Times, a New York University student said a sex crime detective openly doubted her allegation that a stranger had raped her in her apartment. The investigator persuaded her to move forward and closed the case, she said.
The alleged rapist, identified by fingerprints on a condom casing found at the apartment, was later jailed on a burglary charge – but was eventually released and assaulted three more women because the Special Victims Division never told prosecutors he was a rape suspect, the Times reported.
The unit has also been scrutinized, including by the NYPD’s Home Office, for alleged mishandling of rape sets and for investigators who allegedly worked the department for hours.
Damian Williams, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, said victims of sex crimes “deserve the same rigorous and unbiased investigation of their cases that the NYPD offers to other categories of crime.”