In late October, several advocates representing survivors of sexual assault met with top officials from the NYPD. These meetings have become routine since the spring, when the city’s Department of Investigation issued a critical report highlighting the serious staffing shortage in the police department’s Special Victims Division (SVD).
But this meeting did not contain good news about future reforms, according to four advocates who were present or briefed about the discussion afterwards. Instead, police brass said they intended to liquidate several specialized detective units within the SVD.
More than a dozen detectives with expertise in stranger rapes or cases in which the victim was drugged would be reassigned to handle daily reports, commonly referred to as “case-catching.” Some advocates saw this reorganization as a shortcut to higher staffing numbers.
“We as a community are hoping for organic additions to the department,” said Christopher Bromson, executive director of the Crime Victims Treatment Center, a non-profit that helps sexual assault survivors. “Additions, not reshuffling.”
Bromson also said he is concerned that the specialized resources of the division will be sidelined, leaving many cases without adequate capacity for investigation.
“Though every sexual assault case is a very complex investigation, these [units] were investigating extremely complex cases,” said Bromson.
The fourteen detectives assigned to investigate cold cases of rape without DNA evidence are now part of the general detective pool. The same is true for three detectives handling highly complex cases involving drug-facilitated assaults, and two detectives who worked as liaisons between community members, according to the NYPD.
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NYPD officials say many of the cold cases were beyond the statute of limitations or unlikely to be prosecuted for other reasons. A spokesman for the department would not say whether victims are being notified that their cases are being set aside unless new evidence emerges.
Chief of Detectives Dermot Shea said keeping these cases open may prevent closure and prolong distress for victims.
“For a system to create a team with no realistic expectations of success, I think we needed to take a second hard look at that and rethink what we were trying to accomplish,” said Shea. “When we wind up at the end getting the victim of a sexual assault even more upset, I think it was time to take a second look at that.”
In total, more than twenty detectives from four units have been transferred to case-catching duty since early October, contributing to what NYPD officials have said is an increase in staffing levels that will lead to reduced caseloads across the division.
“Over the last seven months the NYPD has added 34 newly transferred investigators,” the department said in a press release last Friday. “Additionally, through a combination of civilianization and elimination of redundant functions, the NYPD has created 12 more active investigators and added a new analyst to help automate reports.”
Thirty-one of the new members are “white-shields” — police officers who are training to become detectives, according to a spokesman for the NYPD.
Shea launched an overhaul of the division after the DOI report in March, which called for more staffing to handle new cases. Since January, rape reports have increased nearly 30 percent, a trend that officials say may have to do with the #MeToo movement and widespread media attention on sexual assault.
But advocates say disbanding these specialized units to increase detectives working on daily cases is a way to sidestep the staffing issue, not resolve it.
“It doesn’t hit the root of the issue,” said Bromson.
So far this year, the division has added about 45 investigators to the squad that investigates sex crimes against adults, according to NYPD spokesman Phillip Walzak.
The decision to transfer detectives from the four internal units came in the weeks leading up to the ousting of long time Deputy Chief Michael Osgood. Last Friday, the NYPD announced that Osgood would be transferred to run the Patrol Bureau on Staten Island, a move that elicited widespread condemnation from the advocates.
“He has been fighting for increased resources in that department and increased skill level in that division for such a long time that I think he was kind of expecting that [NYPD officials] were only going to tolerate a certain amount more,” said Mary Haviland, Executive Director of the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault.
“He definitely was trying to build the unit in maybe unorthodox ways, in ways that he thought would make it more survivor-centric,” she said.
Speaking to reporters on Friday, Chief Shea said the transfer was meant to bring a fresh perspective to the division. Osgood has been replaced by Deputy Chief Judith Harrison, a 21 year veteran of the department. She pledged to maintain the survivor-centric model that Osgood had promoted.
“My plan is to build upon the great things that have been done already in Special Victims,” Harrison said. “I want members of the community to know that we are thoroughly committed to investigating these heinous crimes.”