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‘It Was Almost Worse Than The Incident Itself’

New NYPD data show that in 2018 the department closed nearly 500 rape cases due to an alleged lack of participation from victims and had a declining clearance rate for rape, raising questions over its handling of sexual assault.

NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill. Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

On Sept. 21, 2014, Racheal Stirling was sitting in the bedroom of her East Village apartment when her neighbor made a chilling confession.

Juan Scott told Stirling he liked to go to his rooftop to watch naked women through their apartment windows. He called it “showtime.” Sometimes, Scott said, he would find these women on the street and ask them out.

“Kind of makes you wonder how I found you,” Scott told Stirling. She had been casually dating Scott for a few months; they had met when he approached her outside her apartment.

After the revelation, Stirling was horrified. They started arguing. Scott became irate and slammed Stirling’s head against a wall with enough force to leave a dent. Scott then forced her down onto the bed.

That evening, Scott strangled and sexually assaulted Stirling for over five hours in her apartment.

“He would pin me down, shove his fingers inside me, and grip onto me from the inside so I’d stay still,” Stirling wrote in a victim impact statement she read aloud in Manhattan Criminal Court when Scott was sentenced on two counts of felony sexual abuse two years later. “I remember thinking, ‘This is it. This is how I die. With one of his hands around my neck, and the other clamped onto me from the inside.’”

Stirling told The Appeal the attack left her with a concussion, a broken rib, and a sprained hip. On Sept.  23, 2014, Stirling reported the assault to the NYPD. The next day, her case was assigned to Manhattan Special Victims Detective Lukasz Skorzewski.

Stirling said Skorzewski treated her account with skepticism and dismissed her as a vengeful ex-girlfriend. On Sept. 24, NYPD conducted a controlled phone call with Scott in which he confessed to slamming Stirling’s head against a wall and penetrating her without consent. Yet for weeks, Skorzewski never attempted to arrest Scott.

Skorzewski’s notes in Stirling’s case file show that his first and only attempt to arrest Scott occurred 19 days after the confession. But when Stirling called Skorzewski about her case, he claimed he attempted to arrest Scott several times but was unable to locate him. Stirling was incredulous about Skorzewski’s explanation because she had provided him with Scott’s phone number, addresses, and Facebook profile.

On Oct. 13, 2014, Skorzewski finally did go to Scott’s apartment, but he wasn’t home. Skorzewski left his business card, which were followed by a flurry of threatening messages from Scott to Stirling. The same day, Scott sent Stirling over 38 text messages, including one in which he threatened that he “was going to find her and that she needs to drop the charges,” court records show.

A few days later, Scott showed up at her apartment.

Shortly before midnight on Oct. 16, Scott pounded on Stirling’s door and demanded to be let in. Stirling called 911 and then the Manhattan Special Victims Squad. But by the time police arrived about 30 minutes later, Scott was gone.

Stirling begged the officers to find and arrest Scott. “I told the police he was really dangerous,” Stirling recalled. “Can’t you please just go to his apartment? He’s just across the street.” The officers declined to help her.

Hours later, Scott followed another woman into an elevator in a building just a few blocks from Stirling’s apartment. He pushed her to the ground and ripped up the skirt of the 20-year-old victim, and forced his fingers into her vagina.

Two days later, Scott was arrested at an address Stirling had provided to the police. Detectives connected Scott to yet another sexual assault reported shortly before he started seeing Stirling. He is now serving a 14-year sentence after pleading guilty to sexual abuse charges.

“If the police had taken me seriously, this third assault could have been prevented,” Stirling said during Scott’s sentencing hearing on Nov. 7, 2016. “Why did I have to plead with law enforcement to enforce the laws Scott had broken?”

Unbeknownst to Stirling, while Skorzewski was assigned to her case, he was under investigation by the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau for kissing and groping a rape victim whose case he was assigned to investigate.

On Aug. 21, 2014, the NYPD charged Skorzewski with “social and intimate contact with a sex crime victim who was a complainant in the investigation.” That was one month before Stirling reported Scott’s attack.

In 2015, Skorzewski pleaded guilty to departmental charges. He was suspended for 10 days, docked 30 vacation days, and transferred to the medical division in Queens. Skorzewski no longer works for the NYPD, a spokesperson said.

High rate of “unfounded” rapes in Queens

What happened to Stirling is a stark reminder that even when Special Victims cases end with an arrest, it doesn’t always mean the NYPD treated victims with sensitivity and respect. New NYPD data on 2018 rape cases shared with The Appeal by New York City Councilmember Rory Lancman shows a high percentage were closed due to an alleged lack of participation from the accuser or because the rape was unfounded.

At 14.2 percent, the rate of unfounded rapes in Queens—meaning a false report or complaint that does not fit the definition of a penal law crime—is significantly higher than that of any other borough. Citywide, 8.4 percent of reported rapes were unfounded in 2018.

“Queens has an unfounded rate that is just off the charts and should be ringing alarm bells at the Queens district attorney’s office and One Police Plaza,” Lancman told The Appeal. “The NYPD’s data would suggest there’s just a rash of women across the city and particularly in Queens making up rape complaints to amuse themselves, and that is nuts.”

In 2018, 1,965 rapes were reported in the five boroughs, including 166 rapes that the NYPD considered unfounded. The NYPD’s data show 483 or 24.6 percent of rape cases were closed due to an alleged lack of participation from the accuser. Though some accusers may choose not to go forward with an investigation, the department has used the “C-3 Uncooperative Complainant” classification to close cases even when victims want to pursue their case. In addition, a high rate of rape victims not cooperating with the NYPD indicates there may be problems with sexual assault investigations as well as the treatment of victims by investigators.

In Manhattan, the police closed nearly 40 percent of all rapes by indicating victims either no longer wished to participate or had made an unfounded complaint.

“It’s a suspiciously high number,” said Mariann Wang, a civil rights attorney who filed a lawsuit against the NYPD on behalf of two sexual assault victims. “If a woman has the courage to go to the police, it just seems very unlikely to me that they wouldn’t then want to follow up.”

If approximately one quarter of rape victims did indeed choose not to participate in the investigation, Wang said, “there has to be some serious questioning as to why this is happening. What was that first interaction with the police like? Why wouldn’t a woman want to talk again to the police?”

NYPD data also indicates that in roughly one-third of rapes in 2018—695 of 1,965—were closed by arrest. In 2016, 1,436 rapes were reported (not including unfounded rapes), with 759 arrests made. (Those arrests, however, could be for rapes reported in previous years, not just for rapes reported in 2016.) But the department’s clearance rate for rapes declined from 54.3 percent in the fourth quarter of 2017 to 38.7 percent in the last three months of 2018. In Staten Island, the clearance rate for rape dropped from 80 percent to 22.2 percent during that period; in Queens, it declined from 73.4 percent to 35.5 percent.

“We tend to look at clearance rates over a year’s time as a quarter is not reflective of the investigative cycle,” Devora Kaye, assistant commissioner for NYPD’s department for external affairs, told The Appeal via email.

Clearance rates for the five quarters made available by the NYPD show a downward trend since late 2017. Kaye said the department has developed the “complainant not participating at this time” classification for sexual assault victims who choose to disengage from an investigation. She added that cases are closed under this classification when all leads have been exhausted, an arrest cannot be made, and victims choose to disengage.  

“We recognize the need to empower survivors of these crimes, and providing them with control over their participation in such investigations does that,” Kaye said. “The level of participation by a survivor in an investigation, including temporarily or permanently disengaging, is their individual decision. If sufficient evidence exists for the Department to actively pursue investigative leads without the survivor’s assistance, we will do so, with the goal of apprehending predators before they strike again.”

Major changes at the Special Victims Division

Since March 2018, the Special Victims Division has undergone serious structural changes after a report from the city’s Department of Investigation (DOI) found chronic understaffing left detectives unable to fully investigate sexual assault complaints. In 2017, the division had just 67 detectives to investigate 5,661 adult sex crimes. (By comparison, homicide squads had 101 detectives to investigate 282 homicides.)

In November 2018, NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill removed Michael Osgood as head of the division, a move advocates viewed as retaliation for his willingness to challenge the department’s top officials. Some advocates say Osgood’s replacement, Judith Harrison, is approachable and accessible, and applauded her for working with advocates and survivors to improve the space where victims report, but others have said she lacks investigative experience and doesn’t have a grasp of basic detective work despite being in charge of complex criminal investigations.

Some of the specialized squads that Osgood created have been dismantled. The squad formed to  ensure sex crimes were properly classified was shut down, as was the squad investigating the city’s 8,000 stranger-rape cold cases. But Osgood assembled an advocate-led audit of closed cases, which has since uncovered 100 cases that were handled poorly.

Kaye told The Appeal there are 126 investigators assigned to investigate adult sex crimes. Many of the new investigators will be “white-shields,” or police officers who are not yet experienced detectives. Kaye said there are 258 people assigned to the Special Victims Division.

“I think the things that were flagged in the DOI report remain,” said Josie Torielli of the NYC Alliance Against Sexual Assault. In order to thoroughly investigate all reported sex crimes, Torielli said, the NYPD should “enact the hiring decisions that the DOI called for: 74 more detectives.”

On March 19, Councilmember Lancman, who is running for Queens district attorney, questioned the police over an earlier Appeal story, which found 27 percent of rapes reported in Queens in 2015 were classified as “unfounded” according to data from the FBI. Chief of Detectives Dermot Shea reassured Lancman that there was only a “very small number” of unfounded rapes in recent years.

NYPD data can provide only an approximate sense of how the department is investigating rape. For example, every year, the NYPD reports nearly 1,000 more rapes to the FBI than it reports publicly using its own CompStat system.

Kaye said the department reports more rapes to federal authorities because the FBI’s expanded definition of rape includes sexual misconduct, criminal sexual acts, predatory sexual assault, predatory sexual assault against a child, facilitating a sex offense with a controlled substance, stalking, and incest. A spokesperson for the state Division of Criminal Justice Services said the NYPD’s CompStat statistics account for reported first-, second-, and third-degree rapes as defined by the state’s penal law.

In 2017, the NYPD reported 2,375 rapes to the FBI, but via CompStat the department said 1,449 rapes were reported that year. FBI data for 2017 show that there was a higher percentage of unfounded rapes in New York City (10.7 percent) than there were in the next most-populated city in the country, Los Angeles (2.6 percent), despite the fact that hundreds more rapes were reported in Los Angeles that year.

A rape becomes a “dispute”

The 2018 data shared with The Appeal reflects only the department’s closures for rape cases and not, for example, cases like Stirling’s, classified as forcible touching, a misdemeanor. Nor would it include Jennifer Welch Demski, whose rape report was dismissed as a “dispute.”

On July 9, 2015, Welch awoke to find that the man she was dating had removed her tampon and began raping her. She struggled to process what had happened. When she learned the man had later done the same thing to another woman, Welch felt she had to report the assault to the police.

But when she arrived at her local precinct in January 2016, cops told her she hadn’t been raped because she didn’t fight back. One sergeant told Welch she looked attractive in her driver’s license photo and said he frequently had sex with his wife while she was asleep, which she did not report as rape, Welch alleged in the January 2019 lawsuit that Wang filed against the NYPD.

“It felt like their job was not to take my report; their job was to convince me that I was not raped,” Welch told The Appeal. “It was devastating. It was almost worse than the incident itself.”

The precinct officer told her they called the Brooklyn Special Victims Squad, but detectives there didn’t have time to investigate her case because it wasn’t rape. They then sent Welch home with a police report classifying what had happened to her as a “dispute.”

Welch and her co-plaintiff, Alison Turkos, allege that gender bias at the NYPD has led the department to fail sexual assault victims. Late one evening in October 2017, Turkos got into a Lyft, confirmed with the driver that they were headed in the right direction, and then fell asleep. When she awoke, she was being driven across the Manhattan Bridge. Turkos said she was kidnapped at gunpoint and taken to New Jersey where two men were waiting in a park. They then raped her.

Within days, Turkos reported the assault to the Brooklyn Special Victims Squad. But after her first interview with Detective Niurca Quinones, Turkos did not receive an update on her case for five weeks. In December 2017, Quinones told Turkos she had not yet contacted the driver. For months, Turkos repeatedly called and emailed Quinones regarding her case, but never got an answer. On March 18, 2018, Quinones finally told Turkos the semen from two men was found in her rape kit.

On April 5, 2018 Quinones told Turkos she would call her. But she never did. Turkos attempted to reach Quinones several times, but the detective didn’t respond. On April 25, 2018 Turkos filed a complaint with the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau.

“My kidnap and rape happened in October 2017,” Turkos told The Appeal. “For 18 months, I have had a second full-time job trying to get law enforcement to do their job. Quinones never asked me for the driver’s contact information.” Turkos said Quinones also did not ask for the contact information of the two people who saw Turkos get into the Lyft that night. “She said she went to get video evidence,” Turkos said, “that never happened. She never did her job, or even attempted to do it.”

Turkos’s case was reassigned to detectives who took it seriously, then transferred to the FBI because she was transported across state lines during the kidnapping. But Turkos says the FBI told her the failure to obtain video evidence while it was still available and other investigative missteps in the case made it difficult to move forward with the investigation.

Her case remains open. And Quinones, who has been sued at least three times for wrongful arrests, still works with victims at the Brooklyn Special Victims Squad and made $121,875 in Fiscal Year 2018. In 2016, her detective work led to a mistrial in a triple-rape case and cost the city $250,000 in settlements. The Daily News reported three arrests made by Quinones in separate sexual assault cases fell apart, and no one was subsequently charged. One man spent 10 months in jail before being cleared by DNA evidence.

In Stirling’s case, the perpetrator was eventually arrested. But Juan Scott was sentenced mostly for what he did to two strangers, not to Stirling, who says the NYPD’s lackluster investigation led to her charges being downgraded to essentially an unwanted groping.

“The NYPD without a doubt retraumatized me and made a shitty situation completely unbearable,” Stirling said. “I really do believe I could have made it out the other end of this relatively unscathed, mentally and emotionally, had the NYPD not made me question my sanity and my reality.”