Many Americans have grown up with the classic “dun dun” sound echoing from their television screens as scenes from the show Law and Order Special Victims Unit plays in the background at any given gym or waiting room.
The characters on that show are heroes saving women and children in New York City who’ve been victims of horrific sexual crimes. No rock is left unturned by detective Olivia Benson when it comes to solving sex crimes or protecting the innocent.
But in our world, victims of sexual assault who go to the New York Police Department’s Special Victim’s Division for help are met with a very different reality, according the the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.
On Thursday, The Justice Department announced an investigation into the NYPD’s Special Victims Division’s handling of sexual assault crimes and treatment of survivors.
“Based on the information provided to the Justice Department,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “We find significant justification to investigate whether the NYPD’s Special Victims Division engages in a pattern or practice of gender-biased policing.”
The Justice Department alleges that the Special Victims Division’s shortcomings include “failing to conduct basic investigative steps and instead of shaming and abusing survivors and re-traumatizing them during investigations.”
The probe was launched ten months after over a dozen women wrote a letter to the Department of Justice saying the NYPD’s sex-crimes division had failed to properly investigate their cases, according to the New York Times.
If you’ve been keeping a close eye on the New York City department tasked with investigating sexually-based offenses, you’ll know this isn’t the first time they’ve been in hot water.
In 2018, the New York City Department of Investigation released a scathing report on the department. The report found that “NYPD has routinely understaffed and neglected the Special Victims Division, negatively impacting sexual assault investigations.”
And that same year, the National Organization for Women NYC and Women’s Justice NOW released a damning survey of twenty anti-violence and rape crisis programs working with over 5,000 survivors of sexual violence in New York City.
Most of the organizations surveyed said the NYPD did a “not so good” or poor” job responding to survivors.
Although that survey did not look at race, barriers to get help are likely even steeper for Black women. Black women experience sexual violence at higher rates than any other group except Native American women. And for every 1 Black woman who reports rape, at least 15 do not, according to the National Black Women’s Justice Institute.
Mayor Eric Adams, the city’s second Black Mayor, and a former NYPD police officer, has agreed to cooperate with the investigation along with Keechant Sewell, the NYPD’s first female commissioner.
But time will tell if any real changes are made to help the survivors who’ve been let down by this department time and time again.