“Survivors of sexual assault should expect effective, trauma-informed and victim-centered investigations by law enforcement,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, who oversees the Civil Rights Division of the justice.
The investigation is the Justice Department’s sixth into a local law enforcement agency since Attorney General Merrick Garland took office, joining ongoing investigations into municipal police departments in Minneapolis, Louisville, Phoenix and Mt. Vernon, NY, as well as the Louisiana State Police.
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The announcement comes after years of turmoil at New York’s Special Victims Division, which has about 255 investigators, less than 1% of the city’s police force. The division was the nominal inspiration for the popular TV show Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, a fictional series that debuted in 1999 and has aired ever since.
In 2018, the New York City Investigative Department released a scathing assessment, saying the division was understaffed and not taking date rape seriously. Last fall, victims of sexual assaults offered personal testimony to city council, alleging that investigators failed to recover evidence and closed investigations without their consent.
Michael King, an inspector chosen to lead the division in 2020, was kicked out in February. Police Commissioner Keechant L. Sewell replaced him in May with Inspector Carlos Ortiz, a 25-year veteran of the police department, and the division was restructured.
Justice officials said Sewell, New York City Mayor Eric Adams and company attorney Sylvia O. Hinds-Radix pledged to cooperate with the federal investigation.
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In a statement, Mayor’s spokesman Max Young cited the city’s efforts to bring new leadership and structure to the Special Victims Division.
“There is no higher priority for law enforcement than ensuring victims of sexual assault get the justice they deserve and the care, support and treatment they need. “, said Young. “We welcome this review, will cooperate fully with this investigation, and will continue to take all necessary steps to ensure that we resolve the issues that have dragged on for decades.”
NYPD officials also welcomed the federal review and pointed to an independent audit released in May by the Research Triangle Institute that offered recommendations for new policies and procedures regarding training, orientation and monitoring.
The Special Victims Division “has also been strengthened with an increased number of investigators, specialized training and the creation of new facilities designed to improve the comfort of survivors,” the police department said in a statement. “The department has contracted with peer counselors and survivor advocates to assist in care and provide counseling to survivors who come forward.”