Why Isn’t Rape an NYPD Priority?

Posted May 11, 2018 11:50 p.m. EDT

In recent years, rapes have risen in New York City, as crime overall, even other violent crime, has fallen.

Police officials say the number of cases has increased over the past decade because more women are coming forward to report the crimes. Over the past year or so, they say, the trend has been strengthened by the #MeToo movement, as women reject long-held stigmas that for years kept sexual assault rates artificially low.

Whether or not that’s true, as caseloads have grown for the detectives investigating these crimes, city police officials have done little to help them.

From 2009 to 2017, detectives in the Special Victims Division investigating adult sex crimes saw their caseloads rise by 65 percent. Despite repeated requests for more resources by the division’s supervisor, Deputy Chief Michael Osgood, only two detectives were added in that time to the 72 assigned to adult sex crimes in 2009.

Osgood’s warnings about the state of the city’s sex crimes unit were made public in a Department of Investigation report in March that found the Special Victims Division severely understaffed despite years of appeals from Osgood, advocacy groups and survivors of sexual assault.

The report includes memos from Osgood pleading with senior police officials for more detectives. “SVD, currently, has very serious operational problems that place the Department at substantial risk and those problems are staffing dependent,” he wrote in one memo. “There are approximately 1,400 DNA cold cases in backlog,” he also wrote, referring to unsolved crimes for which there is genetic evidence. “They are sitting dormant. The backlog continues to increase.”

Osgood’s requests for help appear to have gone unanswered. In one 2015 memo, James O’Neill, then the NYPD chief of department, now the commissioner, seemed to back Osgood’s request. O’Neill directed the NYPD’s Office of Management Analysis and Planning to determine whether the additional staffing would be possible. “I have no objection to the suggestion,” he wrote.

The resources never came, but Department of Investigation officials say the NYPD asked Osgood for so much paperwork to back up his request that he would have had to divert staff from solving sex crimes to provide it.

The Police Department is expected to formally respond to the report at the end of June. O’Neill promised last month to review the unit, and he said he had added 20 investigators to the department. Many of those 20 are not yet detectives, but police officers working to earn that rank, known as “white shields.”

Otherwise, the response from police officials and Mayor Bill de Blasio has been disquieting. At times, they cast doubt on the report without pointing out any inaccuracies, saying the numbers may not prove what the report says they do.

“Everyone will say they need more resources,” Chief of Detectives Dermot Shea said in an interview. “Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. From an outsider looking in, sometimes some improper conclusions are drawn.”

Shea and J. Peter Donald, assistant police commissioner for public relations, said Department of Investigation officials did not interview police officials whose insight would be crucial, like Robert Boyce, who served as chief of detectives until recently. De Blasio made similar remarks shortly after the report was published in March, saying the DOI’s failure to interview “key” police officials “raises a real concern about how accurate it is.”

The investigation commissioner, Mark Peters, said that while his investigators did not interview Boyce, the notion that they did not hear from key officials wasabsurd.

“We interviewed the senior-most person in charge of SVD,” Peters said. “We interviewed numerous other officials, both at prosecutors’ offices and at the NYPD.”

Here are some of the facts in the report. The Special Victims Division’s adult sex crimes unit had 72 investigators handling 5,661 cases last year. The city’s 101 homicide squad investigators handled 282 cases. The Department of Investigation report recommended doubling the number of special victims detectives to roughly 145.

The report found that new recruits to the unit were not given enough training and that requests for more staff members had been largely unanswered for the better part of a decade. In part because of these shortcomings, the unit has focused on rapes by people unknown to the victim — “stranger rapes” — while giving less attention to rapes by acquaintances.

In 2011, the report said, one deputy police commissioner responded to concerns about staffing by telling the Special Victims Division it did not have to investigate every misdemeanor sex crime, a direction the unit ignored.

Stories that hinted at issues with the NYPD’s approach to sexual assault have been trickling out for years. In The Wall Street Journal this week, a woman who had been raped said she couldn’t get a detective to return a phone call, while another said a detective asked her how much she drank on the night of her assault, making her feel as though she were to blame. The stories echoed a report from The New York Times in 2010 in which four women described unsympathetic treatment from Special Victims Division detectives assigned to their cases.

The Police Department budget has grown by roughly $814 million, to $5.6 billion, over the past four years under de Blasio. But when we asked NYPD officials for the size of the Special Victims Division budget, they said they didn’t have that information, the same response Peters said they gave him months ago. “They were not able to provide us with budget breakdowns, which by the way is itself concerning,” Peters said. “Where you put your resources demonstrates what your priorities are.”

Advocates for sexual assault survivors say Osgood made substantial improvements to the unit even as his requests for more resources were ignored. Last year, for example, he introduced a training technique, Forensic Experiential Trauma Interview, to help sex crime victims remember key details that could help solve a case.

“I’ve never encountered another special victims investigator who can match Osgood’s expertise or his dedication to these cases,” said Jane Manning, director of advocacy at Women’s Justice NOW. The NYPD would not let us talk to Osgood. Asked why, Donald said he thought that talking to Shea was “quite sufficient.”

Osgood attended an April 9 City Council hearing on the Department of Investigation report with top police officials, but he didn’t testify.

Michael Bock, a former Special Victims Division sergeant who worked with Osgood and retired last August, said the Department of Investigation report “absolutely” reflected reality inside the unit. “The upper echelon of the PD always said that these investigations were extremely important, and they were on parallel with homicide investigations,” he said. Despite their talk, he said, the unit’s repeated requests for resources fell on deaf ears. “They went up the chain of command, and the majority of them were unanswered.”

Shea, who just started in the role as chief of detectives last month, said that he was taking the report seriously and was open to adding staff members to the division, but that he would need to weigh its needs against those of other departments. “I’d be hard-pressed to find you a unit within the NYPD that has not within the past couple years asked for more personnel,” he said.

Yet, while other major crimes have continued to fall, reported rapes have increased. So far, senior officials in the NYPD appear to have looked on as the number of sexual assault cases has risen and done little to help the detectives dedicated to solving them. It is disturbing to consider an apparent lack of alarm — over nearly a decade, across two mayoral administrations, by an essentially all-male cast of officials — over a crime that largely affects women.

The Department of Investigation report lays out a way to solve this problem and make New York City safer for women. We hope the Police Department and the de Blasio administration agree and follow its advice.

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