In an Op Ed in the New York Daily News, Lesley Brovner and Mark Peters urge the new NYPD police commissioner to overhaul sexual assault policing
A sexual assault policing overhaul can’t wait
By Lesley Brovner and Mark Peters
New York Daily News |
Feb 09, 2022 at 5:00 AM
No doubt, this first month has been a trial by fire for Police Commissioner Keechant Sewell. Crime is rising, there have been the tragic murders of two officers as well as numerous other gun and shooting incidents. As Sewell moves forward with both addressing the increasing violence in New York City and reforming the department, we urge her to ensure that these reforms include another crisis of violence: The NYPD’s failure to properly investigate sexual assault against women.
In this file photo, New York Police Department Deputy Chief Judith Harrison, in charge of the Special Victims Division, walks through the NYPD Detective Bureau in the Bronx borough of New York.
In this file photo, New York Police Department Deputy Chief Judith Harrison, in charge of the Special Victims Division, walks through the NYPD Detective Bureau in the Bronx borough of New York. (Richard Drew/AP)
Righting wrongs that have persisted for years will help advance Sewell’s mandate in two ways at one time. Getting sexual predators off the street — predators with one of the highest recidivism rates around — will help reduce violence in the city. At the same time, it will represent a major reform in the way that the NYPD interacts with city residents.
The failure to properly investigate sexual assault runs broad and deep within the department. To begin with, there are simply not enough officers assigned to the Special Victims Division (SVD) — the group that investigates such crimes — so cases do not get the attention required. Moreover, officers are often not properly trained in the difficult and sensitive work of interviewing assault victims and thoroughly investigating these cases. As a result, victim interviews are often re-traumatizing and sometimes cause victims to withdraw from the process; arrests are less frequent; and, when arrests do occur, cases are harder to successfully prosecute because police work at the front end was flawed.
We’ve seen this firsthand. In 2018, while running the Department of Investigation (DOI), the city’s inspector general, we oversaw an investigation into the problems with the NYPD’s handling of adult sexual assault cases. The findings from our report were deeply disturbing: The department knowingly and egregiously understaffed SVD for many, many years. Further, the officers in SVD were woefully undertrained.
As the report put it, “Rather than furnish proper staffing, NYPD leadership in 2011 directed SVD…to simply not investigate all misdemeanor sexual assaults.” This is outrageous, as misdemeanor sexual assaults can involve serious criminality, such as “sexual intercourse with another person without such person’s consent.”
The problem of understaffing continued for years. The report found that “in March 2018, NYPD’s homicide squads had 101 detectives with 282 homicides in 2017; during the same time period, SVD’s adult sex crime units had a mere 67 investigators despite its 2017 caseload of 5,661.”
Not only did the NYPD fail to have sufficient detectives to investigate sex crimes, but it failed to properly train the ones who were assigned to SVD. For example, at the time of the report, new SVD recruits got just 40 hours of instruction over five days — compared to six to eight weeks for a new motorcycle patrol officer.
All of this occurred despite the pleas by the then-head of SVD, Michael Osgood, for more staff and despite his work to try to improve the training provided to his officers. Not only were Osgood’s attempts to improve the situation rebuffed by higher-ups, but shortly after our report was released, Osgood was pushed aside and removed from his post. A series of replacements cycled through; none seems to have had any positive impact on the division.
According to advocates, these problems continue. And it will continue until NYPD leadership decides that real change is necessary.
It is important to say that none of this is an indictment of the NYPD as a whole. The department remains one of the best trained most professional law enforcement organizations in the world.
Furthermore, the failure to properly address sexual assault is of course not limited to New York. The FBI’s now-infamous mishandling of the Larry Nassar case is a clear example of how not to investigate sexual assault. According to the Department of Justice’s own inspector general, the bureau failed to even contact key witnesses, failed to inform local law enforcement and failed to follow up properly on numerous credible allegations.
Similarly, in Chicago, it has been reported that the police department there failed to make arrests in 80% to 90% percent of sex crime cases from 2010 to 2019. In one reported case, the police failed to arrest five attackers who assaulted a 10-year-old girl despite matching rape kit DNA, until local media began reporting on the case.
Back in New York, the challenge of fixing the NYPD’s SVD rests with our new commissioner. She and Mayor Adams have stated a desire to reform the NYPD while also remaining aggressive about law enforcement practices. Effectively changing SVD would be a way to do both and substantially improve New York City.
Brovner and Peters are the founding partners of the law firm Peters Brovner LLP.