The entrance door of NYPD's  Brooklyn Special Victims Division in...

The entrance door of NYPD's  Brooklyn Special Victims Division in Brooklyn. Credit: for New York Daily News/Luiz C. Ribeiro

The U.S. Department of Justice announced Thursday it will conduct a wide-ranging investigation into the NYPD’s handling of sexual assault crimes in response to allegations that investigators failed to take basic investigative steps and instead shamed victims for more than a decade.

The Department of Justice’s civil pattern or practice investigation into the police department’s Special Victims Division will include a review of policies, procedures and training to determine whether SVD investigators engage in gender-biased policing.

The probe, headed by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, as well as the U.S. attorney’s offices for the Southern and Eastern Districts of New York, will also include an examination of how the Special Victims Division interacts with victims and witnesses, collects evidence and completes investigations. Additionally, investigators will look at any steps the NYPD has taken to address any issues in its handling of sexual assault cases, how SVD is staffed and allocates resources, and the services it offers to sexual assault victims, the DOJ said.

“The Department received information alleging deficiencies at SVD that have persisted for more than a decade, depriving survivors and the public of the prompt, thorough, and effective investigations needed to protect public safety,” the DOJ said in a statement announcing the investigation. “These deficiencies allegedly include failing to conduct basic investigative steps and instead shaming and abusing survivors and re-traumatizing them during investigations.”

Kristen Clarke, the assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said in a statement: “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. Investigations into sexual assault that comply with the Constitution promote accountability, enhance public safety and foster community trust.”

The NYPD said it welcomed the probe.

NYPD Commissioner Keechant Sewell said in the statement: “We continue the NYPD’s commitment to the development of the Special Victims Division. Our goal is for SVD to be the national model. 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 DOJ said it notified Sewell, as well as NYC Mayor Eric Adams and NYC Corporation Counsel Sylvia O. Hinds-Radix, of the investigation before announcing it publicly and they said they would cooperate with the probe.

The SVD, which investigates allegations of rape, sexual assault and child abuse, has long faced allegations of misconduct by advocates for sexual abuse survivors. In 2018, the New York City Department of Investigation issued a report saying the division was routinely understaffed and its investigators gave priority to high-profile cases and those in which the suspect was a stranger.

Last month, Sewell said the department would implement a number of recommended reforms from an independent review conducted by the Research Triangle Institute, including comprehensive training in dealing with sexual assault victims.

Sewell also appointed a new commander to oversee the division. The NYPD said Inspector Carlos Ortiz would supervise a “survivor-centric, evidence-driven investigative body” that would now include human trafficking cases that were previously investigated by the NYPD’s Vice Unit.

“Respectful, thorough, and complete investigations of sexual assaults are fundamental to a well-functioning justice system," said Breon Peace, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, which includes Nassau and Suffolk counties."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."

Speaking at an unrelated event in the Inwood neighborhood of Manhattan about COVID medicine, Mayor Eric Adams said of the Justice Department probe, “There’s no higher level of priority for us” than to “ensure that victims of sexual assault receive the right treatment, investigation and resolution.”

“We were not sitting on our hands," Adams said. "The police commissioner immediately started taking actions toward what we perceived as how to make sure that unit is a professional unit.”

He said the city would cooperate, “but we’re also going to continue to move forward. The police commissioner has already taken steps, and we’re gonna continue to do that now.”

With Matthew Chayes

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