NYPD sex crimes division is still understaffed, council member says

Helen Rosenthal on what’s lacking within the unit where change is needed.

City & State caught up with council member Helen Rosenthal to talk about her ongoing concerns over how survivors of sexual assault are treated in the city.

City & State caught up with council member Helen Rosenthal to talk about her ongoing concerns over how survivors of sexual assault are treated in the city. Jeff Reed

The New York City police unit investigating sex crimes is still understaffed and underresourced, three years after an eye-opening report drawing attention to the department’s shortcomings, Council Member Helen Rosenthal says.

In 2018, the New York City Department of Investigation said in a report that the NYPD’s Special Victims Division – which investigates sex crimes and allegations of child abuse – was understaffed and underresourced, leading to a failure to sufficiently investigate cases of sexual assault. Among the findings was that the unit took cases of so-called “acquaintance rape” – such as date rape – less seriously than “stranger rape,” and that victims were at times “re-traumatized” by inexperienced investigators during questioning. 

At the time, the NYPD refuted the findings of the report. In the three years since, the division has added staff, and a new commander was installed soon after the report. But problems at the SVD continue. In 2019, Internal Affairs probed the SVD for alleged cases of cops being paid for time they didn’t work. And earlier this year, a group of sexual assault survivors called on the Justice Department to investigate the SVD over some of the same problems raised in the 2018 report. The NYPD did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Ahead of a city council oversight hearing on the SVD on Monday, City & State caught up with Rosenthal to talk about her ongoing concerns over how survivors of sexual assault are treated in the city. 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

This 2018 report found the Special Victims Division was understaffed and insufficiently addressing sexual assault cases. What, if anything, has changed in the last three years?

I think there are three buckets where the DOI report laid out a very simple roadmap. The first question is, do you have enough detectives for them to be able to do a good job? And the DOI report said, “No, not even close.” Basically they said, and the advocates have also said, you need to double the size of the unit. Using the data (the NYPD) has online, it shows that the number of detectives in total in 2018 was 226. And the number of detectives they have in 2020, is 255.

So they’ve added detectives to the SVD, but clearly, it hasn’t doubled.

No. And in fact, if you look at the 2019 report, the total was 261, which implies that the number has actually come down.

If one problem is the level of staffing, what about the other problems laid out in the 2018 report? One finding was that the division was not taking cases of acquaintance rape as seriously as cases of stranger rape.

And why is that? I would go back to they don’t have enough officers, and they’re making a cultural decision that stranger rape is worth investigating but acquaintance rape is not. The second bucket is, are these people trained well enough to be able to do their work effectively? You don't want someone who wants to come forward get turned off by the detective they're working with, and therefore not want to pursue their case. What you'll hear on Monday from advocates is that there are people who walk in, talk to the sex crimes unit detective, and they are treated so poorly that they walk away and never want to talk to them again. The question from the detective is, “If you’re wearing that short skirt and you were drinking and drunk, and you got out and stood on the street at 2 a.m., what did you think was going to happen?” As a survivor, one would say, “Wow, you're re-traumatizing me, because you think I asked to be raped,” which is what that sentence basically means. So the second bucket of training is just critically important.

What is the goal of Monday’s hearing? What kind of changes is the council hoping to bring about at this point?

Having them report to us what they’ve done over the three years. And my hope is that the (Eric) Adams administration learns about these deficiencies in the sex crimes unit, and comes in interested to address these issues. Because under the current administration, we have not seen it get any better. 

A City Council hearing on this issue in 2018, soon after the DOI report came out, got pretty contentious. I read that one official “snapped” at you when you questioned how success in fighting sexual assault is tracked. Do you expect to get a lot of pushback from the NYPD at Monday’s hearing as well?

I don’t know, I hope it doesn’t get heated. The reason it got heated last time was because the department wasn’t being very forthcoming with their answers. I did not hear from them a sense of, “We want to make it better.” You know, “We saw the report, we’re not happy with it, and we’re now going to, with intentionality, make it better.” Instead, what I was hearing was, “No, we’re great the way we are.” And that's why from my perspective, it was my disappointment coming through. 

Apart from staffing and better training, are there any other steps you think the NYPD or the city could be taking to improve how sex crimes are handled and how survivors of sexual assault are treated?

That’s the third bucket, which is the facility itself. There’s one SVD per borough. In 2018, the facilities were too small and in disrepair, and were not set up to protect the person coming forward from the perpetrator. Mayor de Blasio promised that he would have all of the facilities renovated, and it looks like he’s making good on that promise. The one challenge though, is that they are building out the space for the number of detectives they currently have, which we believe is too low.

You’re entering your last few months on the City Council now. Any clue on what’s next for you?

I'm really digging into my last couple of months. I’m spending a lot of time doing this. I have a lot of great bills that are being passed and proposed to be passed. But I'm not thinking beyond that. If anyone has any suggestions, I'm open to them.