Justice Department opens probe into NYPD sex crimes unit over alleged gender-biased policing

NEW YORK — The U.S. Justice Department is investigating the New York Police Department’s treatment of sex crime victims after concluding there is “significant justification” to do so and after receiving reports of deficiencies for more than a decade, prosecutors said Thursday.

Kristen Clarke, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, and two U.S. attorneys in New York announced the probe in a release, saying they will thoroughly review the department’s Special Victims Division to gauge whether it engages in a pattern of gender-biased policing.

“Survivors of sexual assault should expect effective, trauma-informed and victim-centered investigations by police departments,” Clarke said. “Based on information provided to the Justice Department, we find significant justification to investigate whether the NYPD’s Special Victims Division engages in a pattern or practice of gender-biased policing.”

The investigation comes after years of reports of deficient practices by the NYPD in its sex crimes probe and a 2019 lawsuit in which two women claimed that the NYPD’s Special Victims Division had mistreated them.

One 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 her account of being kidnapped and gang-raped was grossly mishandled by a sex-crimes 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.

Justice Department officials said they will be reaching out to community groups and the public to learn about their interactions with the division.

They 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.

U.S. Attorney Breon Peace said the NYPD has already taken steps to address concerns, but authorities want to ensure sex assault victims are treated fair in the future.

U.S. Attorney Damian Williams 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.”

A message seeking comment was left with the NYPD.

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. King, whose experience included conducting the very physical exams and evidence collection vital to solving sex crimes cases, spent part of his first few days on the job going to the hospital to assist doctors with rape kits.

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.

The NYPD released the following statement:

The NYPD welcomes the review by the U.S. Department of Justice. As an agency, we have committed to improving the quality of our investigations and the care provided by the Special Victims Division when working with some of the most vulnerable survivors of crime.

In May of this year, we received and publicly posted (NYPD Announces Release of RTI Independent Assessment of the Department’s Investigation of Adult Sexual Assault Cases) the results of an independent review conducted by the Research Triangle Institute. RTI created a team of outside experts including criminologists, prosecutors, and investigators, and worked closely with advocates for the survivors of sexual assaults. RTI provided a top-to-bottom assessment of the Special Victims Division. The report concluded that there was much that SVD did well. RTI also cited a number of areas for improvement. Police Commissioner Keechant L. Sewell embraced all of the RTI recommendations and directed to department to implement them.

The commissioner also appointed a new commanding officer of SVD in a selection process that sought input from survivors’ advocates. The SVD has also been bolstered by increased numbers of investigators, specialized training, and the creation of new facilities designed with enhancing the comfort of survivors in mind. The department has contracted with peer counselors and survivor’s advocates to take part in the caring for and providing guidance to those survivors who come forward.

“We continue the NYPD’s commitment to the development of the Special Victims Division,” NYPD Commissioner Keechant Sewell said. “Our goal is for SVD to be the national model. 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.”

Mayor Eric Adams’ communications director released the following statement:

“There is no higher priority for law enforcement than ensuring that victims of sexual assault get the justice they deserve and the care, support, and treatment they need. We welcome this review, will cooperate fully in this investigation, and will continue to take all steps necessary to ensure we fix problems that have been decades in the making. This administration has already begun this process over the past six months, including appointing a new commanding officer for the division, and stands ready to work with our federal partners to ensure the Special Victims Division is worthy of the importance of its mission. We appreciate the Justice Department’s recognition of our efforts over the past six months and will work with them going forward.”

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