True justice for NYC sexual violence victims

By Lesley Brovner & Mark Peters
New York Daily News
Jul 12, 2022

Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice opened a civil rights investigation into the NYPD’s handling of sexual assault cases. This is a very big deal, and it’s quite possible the remedy should lead to additional federal oversight of one of the police department’s most important functions.

Here’s why:

The failure to properly investigate sexual assault runs broad and deep within the NYPD. In 2018, while in charge of the Department of Investigation (DOI), the city’s inspector general, we issued a report showcasing NYPD’s Special Victims Division’s (SVD) egregious failure to properly investigate sexual assault. The findings from our report were gravely disturbing. The department knowingly and egregiously understaffed SVD for many, many years. Further, the officers in SVD were woefully undertrained.

The report found that: “Rather than furnish proper staffing, NYPD leadership in 2011 directed SVD…to simply not investigate all misdemeanor sexual assaults.” This is outrageous. Misdemeanor sexual assaults can involve serious criminality, such as “sexual intercourse with another person without such person’s consent.” The problem of understaffing continued for years. The report found that “in March 2018, NYPD’s homicide squads had 101 detectives with 282 homicides in 2017; [while], SVD’s adult sex crime units had a mere 67 investigators despite its 2017 caseload of 5,661.”

Not only did the NYPD fail to have sufficient detectives to investigate sex crimes, but it failed to properly train the ones who were assigned to SVD. Indeed, at the time of the report, new SVD recruits got a mere 40 hours of instruction over five days — compared to six to eight weeks for a new motorcycle patrol officer.

None of this was an overall indictment of the NYPD. The department is one of the best-trained, most professional law enforcement organizations in the world. But the treatment of sexual assault survivors was and remains unacceptable.

Nevertheless, the department was utterly dismissive of the report’s findings — not only reacting angrily to the report itself but dismissing the concerns of advocates and City Council members who held hearings to explore the problem.

Mayor de Blasio, who the city should have been able to count on to hold the NYPD to account, was equally dismissive. He failed to fix the problems during his time in office, and indeed failed to even acknowledge that there were problems to be fixed. Instead, he allowed the NYPD to sideline the head of SVD, who had been fighting to fix the problems in the division for years.

Last week, the DOJ officially disagreed with de Blasio and the NYPD, starting an investigation into SVD failures. This is a significant victory for sexual assault survivors and anyone who cares about preventing sexual violence.

Mayor Adams and Police Commissioner Keechant Sewell say they’re committed to working with the federal government, which is a promising change of attitude. At least they have now publicly acknowledged that there’s a problem. But acknowledging a problem — while an important first step — is not the same as fixing it, which they have not done. So this may ultimately not prove to be enough to avert Washington from finding deep deficiencies that warrant more aggressive remediation.

The last time the feds looked into New York City government — in the case of NYCHA and Rikers — we got monitors. Like this, both of those situations involved the city’s failure to act to prevent egregious harm to its citizens. The federal government accused NYCHA of violating basic federal health and safety regulations, including regulations requiring the Housing Authority to protect children from lead paint and otherwise to provide decent, safe and sanitary housing. The feds further alleged that NYCHA repeatedly made false statements to the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the public regarding its lead paint compliance and has intentionally deceived HUD inspectors.

Regarding Rikers, the federal government issued a report, concluding that “a deep-seated culture of violence is pervasive throughout the adolescent facilities at Rikers, and DOC staff routinely utilize force not as a last resort, but instead as a means to control the adolescent population and punish disorderly or disrespectful behavior.”

NYCHA and Rikers may well be harbingers of where we’re headed with SVD: the city’s failure to act to protect vulnerable New Yorkers resulting in a consent decree and monitorship.

This is not to say that feds are perfect. Nor are we in favor of Washington controlling or even monitoring city government except in extreme circumstances. This is an extreme circumstance. The city could have and should have fixed this problem on its own. For whatever reason, the city has failed to do so — or even try. So now we are in a dire situation that requires pressure, and perhaps monitoring from the federal government. Let’s hope they deliver.

Brovner and Peters are founding members of Peters Brovner LLP, a law firm in New York City. From 2014-2018, they ran the Department of Investigation.