Are we holding the NYPD and the Mayor accountable for stopping rape?
Just over a year after the release of the NYC Department of Investigations Report into how the NYPD’s Special Victims Division (SVD) was handling sex crimes, we are reviewing what has changed – and what hasn’t. The findings demonstrated an almost 10-year history of understaffing and under-resourcing the division charged with some of the most difficult investigative police work needed to serve a city of over 8.5 million people.
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, there were only 67 detectives assigned to the adult unit of SVD as of March 2018.
One year later: what has been done to address lack of investment in the Special Victims Division?
One year later, the results are mixed. The twelve recommendations made in the DOI’s report have been only partially addressed – and some, perhaps, only as a result of a package of legislation passed by the NYC Council last year instituting new reporting and training requirements for SVD. For example, while the NYPD has made moves to increase the number of detectives in the adult squads of SVD, the numbers still fall short of what was recommended by DOI. This is concerning, because the number of reports of sexual assault have only been increasing.
Furthermore, the NYPD has not made any clear commitment to ensure that greater numbers of investigators within the division have more years of investigative experience. Only 5% of SVD investigators are First Grade Detectives. Compare that to the homicide unit, which stands at 37% (as of March 2018). The NYPD has ended the practice of not referring all rapes – both acquaintance and stranger rapes – to SVD. This is a significant change. But this is yet another change that will require more resources to handle the additional cases – not less. There’s one big positive outcome that will be a welcome and much needed change for both survivors and investigators: new or overhauled facilities in every borough.
Here’s where we stand today on some of the core recommendations made by the DOI report:
Add 73 more detectives to handle adult sex crimes across the five boroughs, bringing the total to 140.
There are 114 detectives assigned to adult sex crimes (the equivalent of 47 more detectives than what the DOI reported for 2017). This still falls short of the 140 total recommended by the report and does not account for the fact that the nine detectives in Staten Island handle both child and adult sex crimes and that reports of rape and misdemeanor sex crimes are up from 2017.
Adopt an evidence-based investigative staffing model to ensure that caseloads are appropriate. Reduce caseload by one half of the roughly 90 per detective per year estimated by DOI.
While the NYPD has stated its approach to how it determines staffing levels, it has not defined an evidence-based model that it will use moving forward. According to the latest public numbers, the overall caseload is down to 61 cases/per investigator–hitting lows of 47 in Queens and 51 in the Bronx. However, these same statistics show caseloads alarmingly exceeding 100 cases/investigator annually in both the Bronx and Brooklyn, and more than 85 cases in Manhattan. The NYPD reports that its current numbers for the child abuse units contain duplicates that are inflating the caseloads, but even if this is the case, it will need to find a clear way of tracking accurate numbers if it wants to truly be able to assess its capacity–especially when it comes to the sexual abuse of children.
Significantly increase the experience level of investigators assigned to SVD, aiming for a more representative distribution of First, Second and Third-Grade Detectives (First-Grade Detectives have the most experience) and eliminating the transfer of “white-shields” or officers with limited to no prior investigative experience to the division.
The NYPD has made it clear that it does not believe this to be a necessary change. While the DOI report calls for a distribution of 20% First-Grade and 40% each of Second and Third-Grade Detectives, the reality is that only 5% of SVD investigators are First-Grade and only 6% are Second-Grade (67% are Third-Grade). For comparison purposes, the homicide unit is made up of only experienced investigators: 37% First-Grade, 44% Second-Grade and 20% Third-Grade Detectives.
Increase in-house training for both SVD and patrol officers to best respond to sexual assault, including trauma-informed care and best practices taught at every level.
The NYPD has completed some expanded training for SVD that was underway prior to the report’s publication and they have added training for patrol officers and revamped their training on sexual assault for the academy. They have ensured that every SVD detective is trained in FETI: Forensic Experiential Trauma Interviewing, an evidence-based technique that supports survivors with an aim to increase the quality and quantity of information collected in a fair manner. This is a significant investment that can greatly improve the experience of survivors and the efficacy of investigations if properly implemented. However, the DOI report noted that new SVD recruits receive the equivalent of 40 hours of instruction, compared to six to eight weeks of training for a new motorcycle patrol officer. It is not clear what additional training, if any, the NYPD plans to put in place within SVD.
Ensure that all sex crimes, including those perpetrated by “acquaintances” are handled by SVD. The DOI report exposed that there were cases involving acquaintances or domestic rape in which initial arrests made by a patrol officers were never sent to SVD.
The NYPD committed to ending this practice outright, assuring that all sex crimes would now go to SVD (and also necessitating an increase in staff to handle these cases). This is common sense, since statistics demonstrate that victims know their attacker in an overwhelming majority of sexual assaults.
The NYPD should find new locations or completely renovate the five SVD adult sex crime units.
New locations or renovations are currently underway in all five boroughs, and the NYPD is considering ongoing input from the community of survivor-service organizations across the city in the design of these facilities. The NYPD has also stated that it aims to ensure that a victim-advocate is present at every location.
The NYPD should increase its community outreach to encourage victims to come forward in reporting, and advise policy makers and NYPD leadership to recognize increased numbers of reported sexual assaults as a success–since this is one of the most underreported crimes.
In 2018, the NYPD launched “The Call is Yours” campaign aiming to improve reporting on sex crimes and aiding investigations and arrests of possible perpetrators with the long-term goal of preventing future assaults. The campaign’s messaging sought to empower survivors in their decision-making and encouraged reporting to the SVD’s 24-hour hotline 212-267-RAPE (7273) and was promoted via media, taxi cabs, subways, buses and on social media.
The takeaway: the NYPD needs to do more to address rape
Since the DOI report came out, it’s clear that the NYPD has made some important improvements. However, there have been changes made from the top down that raise red flags about the extent of this progress. Some of the specialized units that advocates found to be effective and necessary – such as the Penal Law 130 review team (which ensured that sexual assault cases were not undercharged) and the community liaison units – have been shuttered. And there have been several cases that were being re-evaluated for an initial lack of investigative action that were recently closed instead of pursued.
The NYC Council has passed stronger laws for sexual assault survivors
For these reasons, we applaud the work of the NYC Council in taking legislative action to better hold the NYPD accountable to sexual assault survivors. New laws passed at the end of last year will require annual public reporting on the staffing levels and caseloads of SVD investigators in each borough (already in effect, N.Y.C. Admin. Code §§ 14-179) and requiring comprehensive training for all investigators handling sexual assault and related cases (N.Y.C. Admin. Code §§ 14-180) which goes into effect on June 1st of this year.
NYC can do more to take rape seriously
As one of the most underreported crimes and one that still retains stigma despite some of the progress being made by Me Too, sexual assault survivors face complex barriers to reporting. That’s why each person that does come forward presents the rare opportunity to stop a perpetrator from more rapes or sexual assaults and to restore accountability. No system is perfect, but we must, as a city, commit to the principles that sexual assault survivors are believed and that our criminal justice system will take these cases seriously. It’s the bare minimum required if we are to be a city that truly takes rape seriously.