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Justice Dept. investigating how NYPD handles sex-assault crimes

Critics say investigators failed to follow basic procedures and resorted to “shaming and abusing survivors” in ways that retraumatized them

The U.S. Department of Justice headquarters building in downtown Washington. (Stefani Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)

The Justice Department on Thursday opened a federal investigation into the New York City Police Department’s handling of sexual assault cases, citing allegations that investigators did not follow basic procedures and resorted to “shaming and abusing survivors” in ways that retraumatized them.

Authorities said the pattern or practice investigation will focus on whether the NYPD’s Special Victims Division, which also handles child abuse cases, has engaged in systemic gender-biased policing. Federal investigators will examine policies, staffing and training, as well as how the division interacts with victims and supports survivors.

“Survivors of sexual assault should expect effective, trauma-informed and victim-centered investigations by police departments,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, who oversees Justice’s civil rights division.

The investigation is the Justice Department’s sixth into a local law enforcement agency since Attorney General Merrick Garland took office, joining ongoing probes into municipal police departments in Minneapolis, Louisville, Phoenix and Mt. Vernon, N.Y., as well as the Louisiana State Police.

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The announcement comes after years of turmoil in New York’s Special Victims Division, which has about 255 investigators, less than 1 percent of the city’s police force. The division was the nominal inspiration for the popular television show Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, a fictionalized series that began in 1999 and has been on the air ever since.

In 2018, New York City’s Department of Investigation issued a scathing assessment, saying the division was understaffed and did not take date rape seriously. Last fall, sexual assault victims offered personal testimony to the City Council, alleging that investigators failed to retrieve evidence and closed out investigations without their consent.

Michael King, an inspector chosen to lead the division in 2020, was forced out in February. Police Commissioner Keechant L. Sewell replaced him in May with Inspector Carlos Ortiz, a 25-year veteran of the police department, and the division was restructured.

Justice officials said Sewell, New York Mayor Eric Adams and Corporation Counsel Sylvia O. Hinds-Radix have pledged to cooperate with the federal investigation.

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In a statement, mayoral spokesman Max Young cited the city’s efforts to bring in new leadership and structure to the Special Victims Division.

“There is no higher priority for law enforcement than ensuring that victims of sexual assault get the justice they deserve and the care, support, and treatment they need,” Young said. “We welcome this review, will cooperate fully in this investigation, and will continue to take all steps necessary to ensure we fix problems that have been decades in the making.”

NYPD officials also welcomed the federal review and pointed to an independent audit released in May from the Research Triangle Institute, which offered recommendations for new policies and procedures around training, guidance and oversight.

The Special Victims Division “has also been bolstered by increased numbers of investigators, specialized training, and the creation of new facilities designed with enhancing the comfort of survivors in mind,” the police department said in a statement. “The department has contracted with peer counselors and survivor’s advocates to take part in the caring for and providing guidance to those survivors who come forward.”