The NYPD’s broken promise on rape: The Special Victims Division is understaffed, lacks resources and has shuttered its cold-case unit
Article by Lesley Brovner and Mark Peters
July 19, 2019
Last month, a New Jersey appeals court overturned an egregiously bad decision by a family court judge who had refused to try a 16-year old rapist as an adult because he came from a “good family” and attended an “excellent school.” The judge further downplayed the rape because the victim knew her attacker and it did not occur “at gunpoint.” The judge went on to inexplicably observe that he felt it important to “distinguish between a sexual assault and a rape.”
The judge has just resigned, but his thinking is not an outlier, even within certain parts of law enforcement. Indeed, in 2017, an NYPD precinct captain told a community meeting that the increasing rate of acquaintance rape was “not a trend we’re too worried about.” He added that “if there’s a true stranger rape, a random guy picks up a stranger off the street, those are the troubling ones.” By contrast, he said acquaintance rapes are not “total abomination rapes where strangers are being dragged off the street.”
At the time of the precinct captain’s comments, we were serving as commissioner and first deputy commissioner of the Department of Investigation, New York City’s inspector general. Among other things, we oversaw the inspector general for the NYPD. The comments caused us to launch an investigation into how the NYPD handles acquaintance rape. The findings were disturbing: The NYPD knowingly understaffed the division that investigates sexual assault, and intentionally gave acquaintance rape a lower priority in terms of resources from properly trained detectives.
For example, the report found: “Rather than furnish proper staffing, NYPD leadership in 2011 directed SVD (Special Victims Division, the division handling sexual assault) to simply not investigate all misdemeanor sexual assaults. Misdemeanor sexual assaults can involve serious criminality, such as ‘sexual intercourse with another person without such person’s consent.’ ”
And “understaffing problems have continued since 2011…. 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 only 67 investigators despite its 2017 caseload of 5,661.”
Notwithstanding overwhelming — and uncontested — evidence of systemic failure, and despite the rise in rapes even while all other violent crime categories were going down, the city failed to properly respond. Indeed, the NYPD removed the head of the sex crimes division, who had been calling for proper resources for years and who had cooperated with our investigation. And they promoted the precinct captain whose comments started our inquiry.
A year after the DOI report was issued, rape complaints continued to rise in New York City even by the NYPD’s own accounting.
Victim advocates say they are still waiting for effective NYPD action. Instead they report that the NYPD has still failed to staff adult sex crimes at the levels called for in the DOI report, has disbanded the cold case unit and assigned detectives away from cases involving drug-induced rape.
There has been considerable national conversation — much of it overdue — about reforming law enforcement. But the urgency in that conversation seems to have passed over this issue. None of the reform proposals being widely circulated touch on the issue of more aggressive prosecution for acquaintance rape. These proposals, designed to protect vulnerable populations — including criminal defendants accused of seemingly minor crimes — have ignored the victims of sexual assault.
If the purpose of reform in law enforcement is to protect the most vulnerable, we need to focus on obtaining justice for the victims of sexual assault. To the extent that reform results in the freeing up of law enforcement resources — and we should be careful about how that is carried out — those resources must be aggressively used in areas, including the investigation, prosecution and punishment of sexual assault, that so clearly need them. That is the obligation of law enforcement.
Peters and Brovner are founding partners of the law firm Peters Brovner LLP.