Justice Department to probe work of NYPD sex crimes unit
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.