(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)
Not nearly enough has been done to improve New York City’s response to sexual assault in the one year since the New York City Department of Investigation (DOI) issued a blistering report on how the NYPD was failing to make sexual assault response a priority. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s primary response to the report has been to question its accuracy.
The mayor needs to see that many of the failures documented by the DOI persist today and recently released figures show an alarming one in four rape cases were closed in 2018 due to an alleged lack of cooperation from the victim. In Manhattan, a shocking 40% of all rape investigations were closed citing uncooperative victims and unfounded allegations. A high rate of rape victims not cooperating with police is a red flag pointing to ineffective investigations and likely mistreatment of victims.
The pressure is mounting for this global city that is home to 8.6 million residents and 60 million tourists a year to keep pace with resources and innovation. In the Me Too era reporting continues to rise, and what's more, survivors are taking their complaints public, victims are suing the NYPD, and a state law is about to go into effect that mandates law enforcement agencies adopt policies that are victim-focused and trauma-informed.
What the DOI investigation documented in its 165-page report should be of concern to every New Yorker: a severely understaffed division; too many officers with limited investigative experience; insufficient training; cramped facilities in need of upgrading; and a failure to take acquaintance rape as seriously as stranger rape. Indeed, the report found that although there were more than 5,600 sex crime cases in 2017, by last year there were only 67 detectives to handle them.
The NYPD has made some important changes in response to the report's findings. The department started sending all acquaintance rapes, not just all stranger rapes, to SVD. This is a significant change, but it’s also one that will require more SVD staff and resources to handle the additional cases. The department has also committed to revamping SVD’s facilities in every borough, a welcome change for detectives and survivors. However, more needs to be done and that need is urgent.
A senior advisor to Mayor de Blasio issued a statement calling the NYPD’s investigative efforts “the best in the nation” a year ago. It wasn't true then, and it isn't true today.
Advocates who work with New York City survivors continue to see too many cases falling through the cracks and basic procedures lacking. We've seen failures to call victims back, to keep them informed of their cases, to demonstrate that leads were pursued quickly and evidence was collected in a timely manner, and to meet victims with compassion, concern, and cultural competence. There are undoubtedly many dedicated and experienced investigators in SVD, but without a top to bottom culture shift across the division and investment of more resources, too many victims will get a substandard response. For these people, the experience of reporting can become a painful continuation of trauma, rather than a start to healing.
We continue to call on the mayor and the NYPD to:
-Build a culture that demands meeting all survivors with compassion and professionalism. Research demonstrates that meeting survivors with belief and support not only impacts the trajectory of their healing but helps investigators obtain better information and results. In fact, a strong victim-centered approach was recommended in the U.S. Department of Justice report on preventing gender bias in law enforcement.
-Significantly increase the number of detectives within SVD to lower caseloads: DOI calculated that at least 140 investigators dedicated to the adult squad were needed to do an adequate job, and this was before accounting for the rising reports of sexual assault. Although the NYPD has increased the number of SVD investigators, the recommended number has not yet been met.
-Significantly increase the investigative skill level of those assigned to the division: only 5% of SVD investigators are First-Grade Detectives, those detectives recognized with the highest level of investigative experience. Increasing opportunities for promotion within the division and engaging more experienced investigators from the outset lays the groundwork for a stronger and more effective unit.
-Provide more and better quality training to SVD. The move to ensure that every SVD investigator is trained in trauma-informed interviewing techniques was a significant investment and critical step in the right direction. We’ll continue to push for expanded training until it’s clear that all sex crime investigations are timely, competent, and robust.
We shouldn’t stop at just making changes to the NYPD, that’s just one small piece in addressing sexual assault. New York City aspires to be a model for the rest of the nation on so many fronts -- why not on sexual assault? A comprehensive approach is needed.
We can make consent and healthy relationship education part of every New York City child’s experience pre-kindergarten to 12th grade. We can launch evidence-based public-service campaigns that aim to shift cultural attitudes and beliefs that perpetuate abuse and invest in survivor-led and community-based outreach to prevent violence.
Me Too has done a great deal to break down taboos and to raise awareness of how ingrained and routine sexual assault is in our culture. April is sexual assault awareness month – it should be sexual assault accountability month. And accountability lies with the mayor of New York City, who has a great opportunity to tackle a societal problem with the urgency, investment and innovation it deserves.