By the time the U.S. Justice Department announced last month that it would investigate the New York Police Department’s handling of sex crimes, rape survivors and victim advocates had spent years pushing city and state officials to act.
In public testimony and private meetings with the Police Department, City Hall and the attorney general’s office, they detailed encounters with investigators in which their experiences were dismissed and their cases fumbled. They gave interviews to city investigators who blamed police leaders in a pivotal report. Some filed a federal lawsuit accusing the police of gender bias. Even Gloria Steinem, the feminist leader, joined a protest at City Hall.
Despite their efforts, no one with power over the department compelled it to fix longstanding problems in the unit responsible for investigating sex crimes, the Special Victims Division. Officials failed to institute uniform policies for handling cases or stabilize the leadership in the unit after a period of turnover.
And they failed to quell the anger of survivors who then turned to the Department of Justice, writing about their grievances and prompting federal prosecutors to take the rare step of investigating the police.
Now, the Police Department could be forced to adopt changes supervised by a federal monitor, an expensive and time-consuming practice that already governs its political surveillance and stop-and-frisk practices.
“We tried all these avenues and we got nowhere,” said Mary Haviland, former executive director of the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault and the author of a 12-page letter that advocates sent to the Justice Department last July. “We came to the point of feeling that D.O.J. was our only help.”
The local inertia shows how efforts to hold law enforcement accountable in America’s largest city have stalled since the #MeToo movement prompted the nation to grapple with the pervasiveness of sexual assault. The cases that defined #MeToo largely involved white women leveling accusations against powerful men in prominent industries like film and politics. But in New York, the vast majority of the 8,600 sex crimes reported each year involve Black and Hispanic victims who know their assailants in some way.
The Police Department’s response to those assaults has been “negligent and sexist,” violating the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause, 17 survivors and two of their mothers said in a letter to the Justice Department. In her own letter, Gina Tron, 39, described how a stranger lured her to his car after a book club meeting 12 years ago and drove her to his Sunset Park house, where he attacked her. Ms. Tron said a Special Victims detective told her she was wasting his time with an “iffy rape case.”
“The N.Y.P.D. and other officials say what they need to say, what they think that people want to hear, to make it look like they’re doing something,” she said in an interview. “Nothing has changed since I was attacked in 2010.”
Mayor Eric Adams, a former police captain, is now responsible for delivering change, a test of his will and ability to overcome years of Police Department resistance. And a change that he promised to take seriously.
“We welcome this review,” said Fabien Levy, a spokesman for the mayor, adding that the administration “will cooperate fully in this investigation, and will continue to take all steps necessary to provide justice to victims of sexual assault and fix the problems that have been more than a decade in the making.”
A Troubled Unit
The Special Victims Division was created in 2003 to investigate sex offenses and child abuse as well as monitor sex offenders. But its staffing has stagnated for years.
Victims described how their cases were assigned to officers who did not seem to know how to investigate them or did not care to make the effort, if they had time at all. Some investigators failed to return to crime scenes, collect surveillance video or speak to witnesses. Victims said investigators pressured them to sign forms that prematurely closed cases. Some victims even footed the bill for forensic testing and medical procedures.
Errors by investigators ruined cases, the victims said, an assertion supported by an evaluation conducted last year at the Police Department’s request. Researchers from the firm RTI International found that more than half of sexual assault cases were closed for lack of evidence, despite suspects having been identified in more than 80 percent of reports.
In most cases, the assailant was someone like a boyfriend, co-worker, neighbor or relative. For Meghan G., it was a man she had just met at a bodega who raped her in a Bushwick park in October 2015. (The Times does not identify sex crime victims without their consent, and Meghan, 27, agreed to use part of her name.)
In an interview, she said her memory of that night was hazy because she had been drinking. Case files she obtained suggest that no one made much of an effort to help shed more light on what happened.
A friend who sent Meghan home in a cab was not interviewed, nor was the driver. Surveillance video was not collected. Witnesses who might have heard her screams were not sought.
Instead, Special Victims detectives insisted that Meghan call the perpetrator to see if he would incriminate himself.
The technique, known as a controlled phone call, can be a crucial tool in cases of acquaintance rape, the most common kind, where the central question is not whether sex occurred, but if it was consensual. In practice, however, investigators often do not have experience or time to properly prepare the victim.
Meghan refused the call, and the police closed her case.
A month later, investigators reopened it after a DNA test on the underwear she wore when she was raped. When they contacted her in January, she was 11 weeks pregnant by her rapist and had decided to get an abortion. Moments before her operation, the police asked her to postpone so that they could collect the fetus’s DNA. She reasoned that it would not prove she was raped, and went through with the abortion.
The case was closed again. The police described her in the file as “uncooperative.”
She shared her experience publicly last fall at a City Council hearing, where women who had reported attacks as recently as 2020 recounted similar experiences. Many later spoke to federal prosecutors.
Investigators “continue to act the same with the same results, and they leave behind a trail of victims,” Meghan said in an interview.
The Police Department declined an interview request about the unit’s performance.
“The N.Y.P.D. has made significant improvements to ensure that its investigators provide the best possible service to survivors of sexual assault,” the department’s press office said in a written statement.
A Road Map
The problems burst into public view in 2018, when the inspector general for the Police Department, an office within the city’s investigations agency, released a blistering report blaming police leaders for failing to act on years of warnings that the unit was understaffed and overwhelmed.
Survivors now saw their cases in the context of systemic failures. Two survivors — one who said she was raped by a boyfriend after declining sex and another who reported being gang-raped by a Lyft driver and two other men — cited the findings in a lawsuit accusing the police of gender bias.
The report called on the Police Department to double the size of the sex crimes squads by hiring more experienced investigators, training them better and creating greater promotion opportunities to attract seasoned detectives. The previous year, the watchdog reported, the division had 67 sex crimes investigators with 5,661 cases — a load 66 percent higher than in 2009, and 20 times higher than that of homicide detectives.
Police increased the number of investigators to 121. But the overall level of experience dropped as officials assigned unseasoned officers, and training has been inconsistent, city investigators and RTI researchers have said in separate reports.
The division has also lacked steady leadership. At least 10 supervisors have retired or transferred in the past four years, including two disciplined this year in connection with an internal affairs investigation of absenteeism and lost rape kits. Three commanders have led the division since 2018.
After the inspector general’s report, the City Council quickly passed legislation requiring the department to provide information about staffing and caseloads at the Special Victims Division, as well as implement training for all officers responding to sex crimes.
Helen Rosenthal, the council member who led the push for the changes, joined advocates and survivors in quarterly meetings with the police commissioner before the pandemic. Officials offered assurances, but she became frustrated with the lack of progress.
“We felt that we were being ‘yes ma’amed,’” she said.
She tried to meet with Mayor Bill de Blasio, but managed only to grab him for a minute after an event in 2020, where she asked him to approve upgrades to spaces where victims meet investigators.
“What I asked him to do was the lowest, lowest-hanging pieces of fruit,” she said. “He did that. He did nothing else.”
Outside the Police Department itself, no one had the power to do more than the mayor, who appoints the commissioner and has ultimate say over the department’s priorities. But Mr. de Blasio, critics say, made little effort.
When the inspector general’s report was released, Mr. de Blasio echoed police officials in questioning its credibility. Months later, he fired the city’s top investigations official, Mark Peters, over an unrelated matter. Mr. Peters, in a letter to the City Council, accused police officials of obstructing the report by withholding documents and directing witnesses not to appear for interviews.
Michael G. Osgood, who was removed as the commander of the Special Victims Division after the audit, said in a wrongful-termination lawsuit that department lawyers instructed him to stonewall city investigators. Instead, he provided them with dozens of memos detailing the division’s problems and sat for interviews under oath — actions that he said led to his ouster.
The division’s performance seemed to get worse. Rape clearance rates, which measure how often cases are solved by arrest or are closed because of circumstances beyond investigators’ control, fell from about 47 percent in the last quarter of 2017 to 31 percent over the same period last year.
Mr. de Blasio did not grant an interview request from The Times. In a statement emailed by a spokesman on July 14, he said the federal investigation “must get to the truth, and anyone who didn’t do their jobs should be held fully accountable.”
But Donovan Richards, a former chairman of the City Council’s Public Safety Committee, said Mr. de Blasio’s unquestioning support emboldened the department to resist efforts to fix its response to sexual assault.
“It’s very hard to make transformational change when you have a Police Department that the mayor backed,” said Mr. Richards, now the Queens borough president. “Everything’s a fight.”
In 2018, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo authorized the attorney general to investigate how the Police Department and the Manhattan district attorney’s office handled sexual assault complaints. The office of Attorney General Letitia James, elected that year, told The Times on July 11 that the probe continues.
Rape victims began contacting the Department of Justice after President Biden’s administration opened investigations into police practices in other cities.
A broad coalition of survivors, City Council members and victim-advocacy groups wrote letters asking federal prosecutors to examine whether the failure to fix the Special Victims Division amounted to gender bias.
Federal prosecutors responded within days of receiving the main letter from victims and their mothers, who were recruited by the Women’s Equal Justice Project, a nonprofit that helps survivors navigate the criminal justice system. They conducted more than a dozen interviews last fall.
Ms. Tron spoke to them in November. She said she had been nervous about talking to law enforcement officials again.
“It was cartoonish how bad the Special Victims Division treated me,” she said. By contrast, she said, the federal interview was “healing.”
Prosecutors laid out their investigation for survivors and advocates during a virtual meeting on July 8. They said that if they found violations and the city refused to undertake reforms, the Justice Department could sue.
Mr. Adams and Police Commissioner Keechant L. Sewell have pledged their full cooperation. In a public service announcement this year, the mayor labeled sexual violence a “crisis.”
Before the Justice Department stepped in, Mr. Adams did not publicly discuss the problems in the Special Victims Division.Mr. Levy, the mayor’s spokesman, said Mr. Adams had several conversations with officials in his administration about the division and replaced its commander.
Survivors and advocates say they hope Mr. Adams takes advantage of the opportunity the Justice Department investigation affords.
After all, Ms. Tron said, his signature issue is public safety.