National News

‘Let Her Down in Almost Every Possible Way’: Police Commissioner Apologizes for Handling of Rape Case

Posted October 28, 2018 5:57 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — It took 24 years, but a woman who was raped in Prospect Park and then maligned by police officials and a columnist who doubted her story has received what she wanted: a formal apology from the New York City police commissioner.

The commissioner, James O’Neill, said in a letter released Sunday that the treatment of the woman and the handling of the case amounted to a “miscarriage of justice.”

Police officials, quoted by a columnist in The Daily News, cast aspersions on the woman’s report of being dragged off a path in broad daylight and raped at knifepoint on April 26, 1994. Investigators then allowed the case to languish for decades after a lab report showed they had been wrong.

O’Neill wrote in a letter to the woman that the police “let her down in almost every possible way,” compounding her pain. “For that,” he added, “I am deeply and profoundly sorry.”

It was a remarkable admission of failure by the head of the nation’s largest police department, which has struggled recently with shortcomings in the Special Victims Division that investigates sex crimes.

Rarely do big-city police commissioners publicly apologize, and O’Neill’s letter seemed to reflect a cultural shift in attitudes toward victims of sexual assault and harassment, fanned by the #MeToo movement. O’Neill, a career police officer, has staked his legacy on building trust with communities wary of the police.

The woman, who is African-American and now 52 years old, said in an interview that the apology left her feeling grateful and unexpectedly emotional.

“I wanted to see this happen so that the NYPD would have to take a public stance in support of survivors, so that there would be a public statement that would make it clear that it was safe and beneficial for survivors to come forward to the police, and that they would not be attacked or pilloried by the police,” she said.

“I was very caught by surprise to see that acknowledged in black and white.”

The commissioner at the time, William J. Bratton, apologized three days after the attack for the police role in airing investigators’ doubts publicly. But O’Neill went further, saying they were wrong to doubt her in the first place.

Sonia Ossorio, president of the New York City arm of the National Organization for Women, called the apology “unprecedented.”

“It’s meaningful to all survivors and it sends a message,” she said. “You can’t move forward until you recognize and acknowledge what has been failing. And it really is our greatest hope that this translates into a new era for the NYPD and police departments across the country.”

The case became a flash point after police officials told the columnist, Mike McAlary, that the woman had made up the attack to promote a rally for lesbian and gay rights. At the time, the woman said she was a lesbian. She now describes herself as bisexual. Nora Ephron explored the incident in the play “Lucky Guy,” which ran on Broadway in 2013 with Tom Hanks playing McAlary.

The doubts raised in 1994 about the account by the survivor of the Prospect Park rape drove a wedge between the police and the overlapping communities of sexual assault victims and lesbian and gay people. O’Neill lamented that divide in his letter, singling out the hoax accusation as “egregious.”

“I firmly believe that no one in the NYPD would draw such an implausible and ridiculous conclusion today,” he added.

The Police Department reopened the investigation a year ago after accusations of sexual assault against movie producer Harvey Weinstein were published, fueling the rise of the #MeToo movement, which has felled the careers of more than 200 powerful men and forced a national reckoning about consent, sexual assault and believing women who make complaints. The issues took center stage last month as Christine Blasey Ford testified against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh at his confirmation hearing.

When O’Neill met with advocates for women during the uproar over Weinstein, they told him the Prospect Park case still “cried out for acknowledgment,” Ossorio said.

In January, semen on the woman’s shorts led officials to identify the woman’s attacker as Edward James Webb, a serial rapist who was already imprisoned for subsequent attacks on other women. Too much time had passed to charge him under a state law that has since been repealed.

John Miller, a former police spokesman who is now the deputy police commissioner for intelligence and counterterrorism, later apologized after The New York Times published a letter from the woman, who said he owed it to her.

Miller acknowledged that he had been unfair to the woman when, as the police spokesman at the time, he revealed that investigators had doubts about the woman’s credibility.

In a column that appeared two days after the attack, McAlary cited unnamed police officials who questioned her account, under the headline: “Rape Hoax the Real Crime.” McAlary, who died of cancer in 1998, wrote: “The woman, who will probably end up being arrested herself, invented the crime, they said, to promote her rally.”

When the semen was found, McAlary wrote that a police official had deemed the laboratory wrong. It turned out, however, that top police officials involved in the case had misunderstood the technical language of the lab report.

The woman’s DNA had commingled with her attacker’s, and the technology that allowed investigators to identify Webb more than two decades later had not been developed. The case went cold, and Webb raped at least four more women.

The woman filed a libel suit against McAlary and The Daily News in Manhattan Supreme Court that Justice Charles Ramos dismissed in 1997 after she could not prove the columnist had acted maliciously. Miller gave a deposition on behalf of McAlary.

“I am very disappointed that John Miller has never been held accountable for the unconscionable statements he made,” the woman said, “and all that followed from them.”

Her lawyer, Martin Garbus, said O’Neill’s “fantastic” apology was undermined by his decision not to take action against officials still in the department who damaged the case.

“The institution takes it on the chin,” Garbus said. "He’s protecting his people there, and he’s protecting sexism and racism.” Public apologies often require police officials to walk a fine line between admitting mistakes, and criticizing the work of their officers. O’Neill drew a backlash from police labor unions in 2016 after he said the police had failed when Deborah Danner, a 66-year-old mentally ill woman in the Bronx, was shot and killed by a sergeant. The sergeant, Hugh Barry, said he had acted in self-defense and was later acquitted of murder.

Other police leaders have expressed regret for their officers’ actions: Philadelphia’s police commissioner, Richard Ross, apologized to two black men who were arrested while waiting for a business partner at a Starbucks, one of several recent instances that have gone viral on social media of white people calling the police on black people who are doing nothing wrong. The department later changed its arrest policy for trespassing.

Since accusations against Weinstein became public, more people have come forward to the police with complaints about their own victimization, and officials have noted an increase among people reporting attacks from previous years. As of Oct. 25, the Police Department had received 1,487 rape complaints, up nearly 27 percent from the 1,178 it had gotten during the same time frame last year. One out of every four rapes reported this year were from a prior year, compared to one of about every six rapes in 2017. A Department of Investigation report in March highlighted that its Special Victims Division was understaffed and its investigators poorly trained and overworked.

Mary Haviland, executive director of the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault, said the report was devastating to advocates who thought the department was trying harder to solve sex crimes.

After initially rejecting the DOI report, the Police Department announced that it was devoting more resources to the unit, including hiring more than 36 investigators, just over half the number the report recommended. The police also started “The Call Is Yours,” a public service campaign on subways, buses and social media encouraging survivors to report their experiences.

Sexual assault survivors have said the department could still do better. Haviland said their frustrating experiences in having their complaints investigated spoke to a need to strengthen the sex crimes unit with more experienced investigators and to protect its case management system from leaks.

Susan Herman, the deputy commissioner for collaborative policing, said the police planned more changes. The apology, while long in the making, was an important step, she said, adding, “It’s never too late to do the right thing.”