The New York City Police Department will increase staffing in its unit tasked with handling sex crimes amid a citywide trend of rising reports of rape.
The department will add 35 investigators to the Special Victims Division, police officials announced at a Feb. 5 press briefing. The NYPD came under fire last year after a report by the city’s Department of Investigation cited “chronic understaffing and inexperience” within the SVD, which “jeopardized prosecutions, re-traumatized victims, and negatively impacted the reporting of sex crimes.”
The NYPD recorded 150 rapes in January of this year, a 27 percent increase over the 118 reported over the same period last year. Three of those rapes were reported in the Upper East Side’s 19th Precinct, which recorded zero in January of last year.
January’s totals represent the continuation of a spike in reported rapes that began in 2018, when police recorded 1,794 rapes citywide, as compared with 1,449 the previous year.
Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill have said that the increased totals are not due to an increase in the actual number of rapes taking place; rather, they believe rapes have long been underreported to police and that survivors have felt more comfortable coming forward in recent years, in part due to increased public awareness and the #MeToo movement. “This is tragically what was happening for a long time but not being reported,” de Blasio said in January. “It’s finally being reported.”
Mary Haviland, the executive director of the NYC Alliance Against Sexual Assault, said this analysis is “likely” correct, but impossible to confirm without improved data collection. Haviland cited a 2015 study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that found 1.2 percent of women in the United States had been raped in the previous year. “If you apply that to the female population in New York City you come up with about 50,000 rapes a year. But only 1,300 to 1,700 are reported to the police, so you know that there’s a big problem and there’s a lot of room for increased reporting without an increase in incidents,” she said.
“White shields”: Topic of contentionOf the 35 new investigators that will join the SVD’s current staff of 260, 15 will be assigned to the division’s adult sex crimes unit, 16 will be assigned to the child sex crimes unit and four will be tasked with investigating transit sex crimes.
Chief of Detectives Dermot Shea said that a majority of the new investigators will be so-called “white shields,” or investigators who are working to achieve the rank of detective. The NYPD’s use of white shields in investigating sex crimes has been a persistent topic of contention between police and sexual assault advocates.
“Our position is that there should be much more experienced detectives in that unit because sexual assault cases are difficult and complex,” Haviland said, adding, “Why are you putting new detectives on sexual assault cases? Put them on lower-level felonies and misdemeanors.”
Shea disputed the notion that white shields are unprepared to handle sexual assault investigations.” I’m very comfortable with the training that they are receiving, the mentorship that they receive once they get into Special Victims,” he said.
Council Member Helen Rosenthal, who represents the Upper West Side and serves as chair of the committee on women, echoed Haviland’s concerns with white shield investigators in SVD. “When NYPD reports that it has more detectives, it’s critical that we ask what grade they are,” Rosenthal said. “Because given the unique nature of the survivor-centric investigation, inexperienced detectives can bollocks up a case, which means there will be no justice for the survivor.”
Legislation passed by the Council last year requires the NYPD to file annual reports on SVD’s staffing levels, including detailed data on investigators’ caseloads and ranks. The NYPD has not yet filed its first such report, which was due Jan. 31, Rosenthal said.
Chief of Crime Control Strategies Lori Pollock said the department will also begin holding weekly CompStat meetings dedicated solely to the Special Victims Division. “These will be closed meetings where we will have supervisors work through their cases and share best practices,” she said.
Rosenthal said she is concerned that the introduction of CompStat, the NYPD’s crime data performance management system, could cause SVD investigators to move too swiftly and “lose sight of the need to be survivor-centric in an investigation.”
“I’m awaiting a briefing on it to see if they’re able to set up CompStat to be more sophisticated than just solving this crime as quickly as possible,” she said.