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Opinion | Federal Action May Finally Fix the N.Y.P.D.’s Sex Crimes Unit

The saga of the Special Victims Division is the latest illustration of the extraordinary measures required to meaningfully reform the nation’s largest police department.

When the N.Y.P.D. conducted sweeping surveillance of Muslim communities in the years after the Sept. 11 attacks, class-action litigation was needed to put an end to the practice. When the department violated the civil rights of millions of innocent Black and Latino men by targeting them for unconstitutional police searches, years of lawsuits were needed to curb the tactic.

Now, it appears that fixing the way the department handles sex crimes will require direct intervention from the federal government. The Justice Department is investigating the New York Police Department’s handling of sex crimes. Problems handling them were well documented in a 2018 report from the city’s Department of Investigation, which cited investigators with little training who sometimes asked victims inappropriate questions like, “Why did you wear that?” and who prioritized assaults by strangers over those committed by known assailants; missing rape kits; botched investigatory techniques; and scores of other practices that have allowed offenders to remain free. The archaic attitudes of some in the N.Y.P.D. toward sex assault sometimes spilled out into public view, as in 2017, when a Brooklyn captain said an increase in reported assaults by acquaintances is “not a trend that we’re too worried about” because such assaults were not the same as “a true stranger rape.” Overseeing it all was a police department that, for years, was led overwhelmingly by older white men who consistently denied requests by advocates and pleas from Deputy Chief Michael Osgood, who led the unit, for more seasoned detectives.

The unit remains so dysfunctional that some sexual assault survivors report their crimes directly to the city’s district attorneys instead of the police. “We could never trust that a person reporting a sex crime directly to a precinct or calling 911, that those cases would be properly filtered through the system and get attended to,” Carrie Goldberg, a victims’ rights attorney who represented some of Harvey Weinstein’s accusers, told me in a phone interview.

Congress gave the Justice Department the power to undertake investigations of civil rights violations by law enforcement agencies in 1994, and since then, the department has initiated 76 of these pattern-and-practice investigations into systemic constitutional violations. The reviews often lead to consent decrees, outside monitors and significant reforms. But if an agreement can’t be reached, the Justice Department can sue to compel changes. These investigations are among the most robust tools the federal government has to implement policing reforms in a country where policing has largely been left to local control. Mayor Eric Adams of New York and Keechant Sewell, the first Black woman to run the N.Y.P.D., have said they plan to cooperate with the federal investigation. That’s promising.

Across the country, the work of holding law enforcement agencies accountable has been arduous. Among the biggest barriers is the qualified immunity doctrine, which frequently shields officers in the United States from liability when they use excessive force or abuse their power. In New York, police reforms are often stymied by the outsized influence of law enforcement unions, and a labyrinthine set of laws designed to keep officers — and often the departments for which they work — from scrutiny. Reforms are still worth pursuing. One improvement, for instance, would be to end the practice of giving New York City’s police commissioner unilateral authority to discipline officers.

State law currently prevents the city from doing so. One bill, sponsored by State Senator Zellnor Myrie, would change that. It would also allow New York City to remove police disciplinary hearings from inside the police department to the city agency that oversees similar hearings for thousands of other municipal workers.

In recent years, the N.Y.P.D. has taken some actions toward improving the Special Victims Division’s effectiveness, such as using new interview rooms for sex crime victims. Department officials have also trained their investigators in how to interview traumatized victims and have hired more people to help survivors navigate what can be a daunting process. The N.Y.P.D. also hired a consulting firm to review the unit and made the findings public. Recently, the department disciplined two former supervisors in the unit for misusing department time, submitting false time sheets and other violations.

These are encouraging steps. But the problems with the unit run deep, so the Justice Department’s investigation is a welcome development. One issue I hope they examine closely is how the city’s most senior police officials have chosen to direct — or not direct — resources to the unit over the years.

In a time of rising concern about crime and plummeting faith in government, police reform is vital. The public in New York and elsewhere have a right to know how law enforcement uses the enormous resources to which it has been entrusted.

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