Feds investigating NYPD Special Victims Division for alleged ‘gender-biased policing’

Kristen Clarke
FILE – Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Kristen Clarke speaks at a news conference at the Department of Justice in Washington, Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021. Federal law enforcement is investigating the New York Police Department’s treatment of sex crime victims after concluding there is “significant justification” to do so and after receiving reports of deficiencies for more than a decade, prosecutors said Thursday. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)

The U.S. Department of Justice announced Thursday an investigation of the New York Police Department’s Special Victims Division for their gender-based discretion in handling sexual assault crimes. 

“Survivors of sexual assault should expect effective, trauma-informed and victim-centered investigations by police departments. Based on information provided to the Justice Department, we find significant justification to investigate whether the NYPD’s Special Victims Division engages in a pattern or practice of gender-biased policing,” said Kristen Clarke, the assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “Investigations into sexual assault that comply with the Constitution promote accountability, enhance public safety and foster community trust.”

Several sources have alleged the unit has failed to conduct “prompt, thorough and effective investigations needed to protect public safety,” as well as claim the officers “shame and abuse” the victims instead of performing “basic investigations steps” for the last decade, according to the US Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York, who will take part in investigating the case. 

“Respectful, thorough, and complete investigations of sexual assaults are fundamental to a well-functioning justice system. Over the last several months, we have learned concerning information from a variety of sources of historical issues about the way the Special Victims Division has conducted its investigations for many years,” EDNY U.S. Attorney Breon Peace said. “Our review is intended to ensure that, going forward, survivors of sexual assault in New York City receive fair and just treatment in the criminal justice system, and as a result, those who engage in sexual violence are held accountable. We appreciate that the NYPD has already taken steps to address these concerns.”

In coordination with the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York and the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, EDNY prosecutors are reviewing policies, procedures and training for the investigations of sexual assault crimes by the Special Victims Division; the unit’s interactions with survivors and witnesses, collection of evidence and completing investigations; steps they have taken to address their defects in handling sexual assault cases; how they allocate resources and staff; and the services and support they provide victims and survivors. 

“Victims of sex crimes deserve the same rigorous and unbiased investigations of their cases that the NYPD affords to other categories of crime,” SDNY U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said. “Likewise, relentless and effective pursuit of perpetrators of sexual violence, unburdened by gender stereotypes or differential treatment, is essential to public safety. We look forward to working with our partners in EDNY and the Civil Rights Division to assess the NYPD’s practices in this area.”

New York City Mayor Eric Adams, NYPD Commissioner Keechant Sewell and NYC Corporation Counsel Sylvia O. Hinds-Radix have agreed to fully cooperate with the investigation. 

An NYPD statement indicated that an independent review, completed by Research Triangle Institute, on their investigation of adult sexual assault cases concluded that there that the Special Victims Division had many practices they did well, as well as some areas for improvement. Sewell welcomed the recommendations and immediately directed that the department make those changes. 

Research Triangle Institute conducted its review using a team of outside experts that included criminologists, prosecutors and investigators, who also worked closely with advocates for sexual assault survivors. 

Sewell appointed a new head of the Special Victims Division, which utilized a selection process that used input from survivor’s advocates, and the unit has ushered in more investigators, specialized training, and opened new facilities designed to be more comfortable for survivors, as well as contracted with peer counselors and survivor’s advocates to help care for and provide guidance to survivors who come forward. 

The NYPD commissioner said that the department will continue to make further developments in the Special Victims Division, which she hopes will be looked to as a model for police departments nationwide. 

“We continue the NYPD’s commitment to the development of the Special Victims Division. Our goal is for SVD to be the national model,” she said. “I believe any constructive review of our practices in the Special Victims Division will show that the NYPD has been evolving and improving in this area but we will be transparent and open to criticism as well as ideas in the process”. 

The investigation is being conducted under the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which forbids state and local governments from engaging in discriminatory policing that strips individuals of the rights afforded to them by the Constitution or federal law and provides the Justice Department with the ability to pursue a remedy for the wrongdoing in through civil litigation, according to federal prosecutors. 

The department will also assess the division’s law enforcement practices in compliance with the 14th Amendment and the Safe Streets Act of 1968.