Under new leadership, the NYPD’s Special Victims Division facilities have gotten some major upgrades, from new paint jobs to new waiting areas and plant-lined interview rooms for survivors.
These may seem like cosmetic changes, but given the sensitivity of the cases handled in the buildings, a welcoming atmosphere can be critical.
“It’s very welcoming, it’s very inviting, and what we want the survivor to feel is safe in this environment,” explained Special Victims Division Deputy Chief Judith Harrison, who has been at the job since November of last year.
The division’s precinct at 653 Grand Ave. in Prospect Heights has now received upgrades to the exterior, including a new paint job, landscaping, a clear address above the door as well as a buzzer so visitors can more easily access the services inside.
The upgrades inside are more substantial. In addition to aesthetic upgrades like new furniture, artwork and succulent plants, there are now two waiting areas — including one equipped with toys and books for survivors with children — and two private interview rooms where survivors can meet with investigators.
Previously, said Harrison, survivors would often meet with investigators at their desks in an open workspace, so they were not afforded the privacy the new rooms provide.
The upgrades are part of a larger overhaul in line with Harrison’s vision of making the division more “victim centered.” Other changes include bringing on more detectives to handle an uptick in reported rapes and an updated training process to better equip all investigators to support trauma survivors.
“‘Victim centered’ is just really making sure the focus is on the victim and on the survivor … we care about the victim from the time that person reports to us to the end, and at all stages in between,” said Harrison. “So these upgrades are very important because this is a space that the survivor will occupy.”
The upgrades are due in part to ongoing feedback from victim advocacy groups, noted Harrison, and the renovation process has been informed by visits to advocacy centers, including a Safe Horizon counseling center. Similar upgrades have also been made at the division precinct in the Bronx, while the center in Staten Island is undergoing renovations and a renovations are being planned for the center in Queens.
In addition to renovating existing spaces, a new Special Victims Division center will soon open at 137 Centre St. in Manhattan.
Before Harrison came on board as Deputy Chief, a Department of Investigation report revealed the division was understaffed and ill-equipped to deal with a massive caseload. As part of the subsequent overhaul, 35 detectives were brought on in February of this year — 16 to investigate sexual crimes involving minors, 15 to investigate crimes against adults, and four to investigate crimes within the transit system. Harrison told amNewYork the division is constantly evaluating employees and caseloads to make staffing decisions.
Rape is notably underreported, and Harrison has previously said that if reported rapes go up, she knows she’s doing her job. She also said she wants to ensure victims feel more comfortable filing a report, and that hopefully center upgrades will help reinforce that feeling of safety.
“I think that the survivor oftentimes feels shame or guilt. They’re afraid to come forward sometimes because they feel they’re going to be re-victimized,” said Harrison. “I think that the upgrades and being victim centered reinforces our attitude that we’re not going to re-victimize you, we want to help you. So we encourage you to report, regardless of when your incident has happened. We are going to provide you with an investigation that is accurate and thorough.”