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Is The NYPD’s Special Victims Division Prematurely Closing Sexual Assault Cases?

Advocates say victims are being pressured to sign ‘withdrawal’ forms to quickly close investigations and protect the department from legal liability.

Photo illustration by Anagraph/Photo by Bumblee_Dee/Getty Images

On March 13, 2012, 19-year-old Katherine Murrell walked into the NYPD’s Special Victims precinct on Grand Avenue in Brooklyn. It had been seven months since she was raped and she hoped it wasn’t too late for justice.

Like many victims of sexual assault,  Murrell wasn’t willing to report what happened on that night in August 2011. But months later,  Murrell had nightmares and worried that if she didn’t do anything, someone else would get hurt. Armed with video of her alleged assailant recorded by friends the night of the assault,  Murrell was ready to have the Special Victims Division investigate.

Instead, she said, Detective Victor Paribello asked her about the number of sexual partners she’d had and how often she partied.

Later, on Aug. 16, 2012, Paribello handed Murrell a one-page “withdrawal” form she believed she had no choice but to sign, allowing detectives to close the case as either “B-6 Unfounded” or “C-3 Uncooperative Complainant.” “I have informed Detective Paribello that I do not wish to pursue this case any further,” read the form that Murrell signed. “I have been informed of alternative options available to me regarding this matter.” The next day, Paribello closed her case, writing that she was “no longer willing to cooperate or pursue this case,” according to the his notes in Murrell’s case file obtained through a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request.

“I remember distinctly thinking that this was the only thing that I could do, because that’s the way he presented it to me,”  Murrell told The Appeal. “He pretty much said we’re never going to find him, you don’t know whose house it was, you don’t know anything essentially. … He said there’s nothing else we could do.”

As far as Murrell knew, Paribello never spoke with any witnesses who were present on the night she was raped. Though she wanted her rape to be investigated, she says Paribello told her to sign the withdrawal form, then deemed her to be “uncooperative.” Paribello didn’t respond to emails from The Appeal seeking comment.

NYPD’s high rate of “unfounded” rapes

What happened to Murrell isn’t unusual.

In 2014, 1,160 cases assigned to the Special Victims Division were closed using the code “C-3 Uncooperative Complainant,” NYPD data obtained through a FOIL request shows, meaning 12.5 percent of all cases assigned to the Division that year (9,254 total) were closed due to an alleged lack of cooperation from the victim. By 2016, 1,551 cases were closed using the uncooperative complainant code.

In March, the Special Victims Division was blasted in a New York City Department of Investigation report that found staffing levels had stagnated while caseloads had skyrocketed, causing detectives to cut corners to close sexual assault cases. In the months since the report, the NYPD restructured the Special Victims Division and reassigned the head of the division, Deputy Chief Michael Osgood, to a patrol borough on Staten Island. He resigned from the NYPD the following week. In mid-November, Deputy Chief Judith Harrison, a 21-year department veteran, became head of the division. NYPD now says overall staff in the Special Victims division has been increased to 281, including 230 police officers and detectives and 51 other personnel. However, city budget documents from the 2017 fiscal year indicate that in 2016, it was a  “286 officer division,” so the personnel numbers effectively remain unchanged.

Staffing is far from the its only problem. In New York City, according to FBI data, nearly 19 percent of the 2,767 total reported rapes were considered unfounded, defined by the FBI as “false” or “baseless.” Research shows only 2 to 10 percent of reported rapes are actually false.

Some boroughs have an especially high percentage: 27 percent of rapes reported in Queens were deemed unfounded in 2015.

Though high rates of unfounded rapes are common in cities and their surrounding areas, including Baltimore County and Scottsdale, Arizona, the percentage of rapes given this designation in New York are significantly higher than that of any other major city with more than 1 million residents in the United States.

From 2014-16, the NYPD unfounded more than 16 percent of rapes. During that same time period in Los Angeles, the country’s second most-populated city, the LAPD unfounded 1.6 to 3 percent of reported rapes.

According to FBI guidelines, reported crimes can be unfounded “if the investigation shows that no offense occurred nor was attempted.” But the NYPD consistently classifies more rapes as unfounded than any other crime. In 2014, 20.2 percent of rapes were considered unfounded by the NYPD. That same year, .8 percent of robberies and assaults and .9 percent of larcenies were unfounded. The crime with the second most-unfounded complaints was motor vehicle theft at 10.9 percent.

“The form wasn’t presented like I had a choice.”

Police departments appear to use withdrawal forms in sexual assault investigations to protect themselves legally. “I don’t know why you wouldn’t just write that the victim didn’t want to proceed in your report,” said Liz Donegan, a former head of the Austin Police Department’s sex crimes unit. Tom Tremblay, a retired police chief from Vermont who works with the Department of Justice to ensure law enforcement agencies are improving their response to sexual assault and domestic violence, said the “departments that I’ve talked to say they use the form because they want to have clear documentation that the victim has selected not to participate, so that should there be liability for not following through with the case, the department feels they’re covered.”

The NYPD would not comment on specific cases nor would they explain what accounts for the high percentage of unfounded rapes. But a spokesperson for the department told The Appeal in an email that “the NYPD has made significant changes to the Special Victims Division over the last 8 months, including leadership, staffing, facilities, policy and training. As the new Commanding Officer of SVD, Deputy Chief Harrison is reviewing assignments, duplication of efforts, and identifying processes that need reform as well as meeting with advocates and other partners in law enforcement. As part of this review, Deputy Chief Harrison is looking at the Withdrawal Form and will be making changes to it. These changes will include eliminating language that has a negative connotation associated with it, and ensuring that as this information is collected, it is done in a capacity that is victim-centric. This may involve creating a new document or making significant changes to the existing one.” Retired NYPD Special Victims detectives interviewed by The Appeal maintain that the forms are simply used to document that the victim no longer wished to participate in the investigation.

Experts and advocates also expressed concern about detectives presenting withdrawal forms to a victim upon initially investigating their case.

In 2015, NYPD Special Victims detectives asked a teenage girl to sign a withdrawal form while she was still in the emergency room after undergoing a forensic rape exam. Stacia Buckner, a former Staten Island rape counselor, was in the ER that night as an advocate and called Amy Edelstein, who worked in the borough as a rape crisis coordinator. Bucker felt that the police should not have insisted that the girl sign the withdrawal form upon their first meeting in the ER because she had just undergone invasive exams and a traumatic experience. Bucker and Edelstein told The Appeal that the teenager was not informed that it would be harder for her to get financial assistance for services such as therapy or for HIV-exposure medication if she signed a withdrawal form.

“They pressured her to sign the form,” Buckner said. “She ended up signing it because she didn’t know what her other options were. She felt pressured—the detectives refused to leave the hospital until she signed it.”

In another instance corroborated by two advocates, including Josie Torielli, formerly the assistant director of intervention programs at the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault, a Special Victims detective unfounded the rape of a woman who needed HIV-exposure medication after the assault. OVS initially paid for the medication, but when they discovered that her rape was unfounded, they told the victim she owed them $2,500.

When a Brooklyn Special Victims detective handed Lisa Smith (not her real name) a withdrawal form in 2015, she believed that she had to sign it. The detective said he didn’t have much to go on in the case and the withdrawal form would merely put the investigation on hold pending the gathering of further evidence, such as surveillance tapes. Later, when the investigation was reopened by different detectives at the insistence of an advocate, Smith discovered that the detective who was first assigned to her case never attempted to recover surveillance tapes or interview witnesses.

“The form wasn’t presented like I had a choice,” Smith said. “There was no back and forth.”

Later, Smith applied for assistance from OVS. She made a small claim for the cost of her clothes that were confiscated by NYPD as evidence, but was sent a denial letter saying they couldn’t determine that a crime had occurred.

“She told me what happened to me…‘wasn’t rape’ because I didn’t say no.”

OVS officials told The Appeal that they are a payer of last resort, meaning victims must first make requests for assistance through health, other insurance policies, or workers’ compensation. Case closure codes, they said, are just one factor considered when determining eligibility for assistance (along with whether the victim has insurance and the results of forensic rape exam). In 2017, OVS received 870 claims for assistance from sexual assault victims. 53 percent were denied, according to data shared by OVS.

Ultimately, when withdrawal forms are inappropriately used to close sexual assault investigations, advocates say, victims suffer. In January, 26-year-old Christina West (not her real name) met with a Brooklyn Special Victims detective after leaving the hospital where she had undergone a forensic rape exam. She says she trusted the police to investigate her case.

But after West finished recounting to a female detective how she had feared for her life and pretended to be asleep when a stranger assaulted her, she simply read the section of the New York State penal law on sexual assault aloud to her.

“She told me what happened to me ‘wasn’t a crime,’ and ‘wasn’t rape’ because I didn’t say no,” West said. The detective then handed her a withdrawal form, asked her to read it, and left the room.

“I was really angered by that because at no point did I express that I wanted to cease the case,” West said. “I didn’t sign it. I wrote ‘I was raped’ on it and left the building. The police instilled so much guilt, even to this day, I question myself.”