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How the NYPD’s Troubled Sex Crimes Unit Is Set Up To Fail Victims

Former top cops say a culture of neglect at the NYPD has left inexperienced and poorly trained officers in charge of some of the department’s most sensitive cases.

NYPD officers at an Occupy Wall Street protest in November 2011Teresa Shen | Flickr

The biggest police department in the country has been under fire for bungling sex crimes for years — and retired New York Police Department officials say the situation has only gotten worse.

The Special Victims Division (SVD) is now full of officers who have little to no investigative experience, sources say. At the same time, structural problems created by the NYPD discourage talented detectives from joining the SVD but incentivize those unqualified officers to join in search of a promotion, even if they have no care or interest in investigating the sensitive cases assigned to the division.

Sources also say the SVD has allowed in some “hooks” or “contracts” — members of the NYPD who have used their connections within the department to get the jobs they want, regardless of their qualifications. In addition, training for special victims detectives was suspended when the COVID-19 pandemic began, meaning many inexperienced investigators who joined the SVD since then have received almost no specialized training.

Advocates, lawmakers, and four former Special Victims Division supervisors who spoke with The Appeal say the NYPD has spent years neglecting serious structural problems that have long damaged sex crimes and child abuse investigations in New York City. In multiple cases, women were assaulted and children were killed after detectives failed to appropriately investigate reports of rape or abuse. But, after a city watchdog agency released a damning report on the SVD in 2018, the situation has worsened significantly, sources say.

In a statement shared with The Appeal, Sgt. Edward Riley, a spokesperson for the NYPD, said that the department has made the SVD better in recent years, not worse. “These assertions are false,” Riley wrote in an email to The Appeal. “Training has been enhanced, staffing has been increased, cases per investigator have been reduced. These are just some improvements that were put in place since the report.”

But sex crimes and child abuse victims who have ended up with untrained and unqualified detectives assigned to their cases have suffered real consequences. In 2019, a special victims detective falsely told a rape victim that her identity would become public if she went forward with her case and the only way to avoid publicity was to close it. When the woman’s alleged attacker was later arrested on burglary charges, investigators made several more errors that ultimately led to the man’s release. He then attempted to rape three more women. That same year, another special victims detective falsely told a rape victim that women often lie about being raped to get back at a boyfriend or avoid being deported, then didn’t collect crucial evidence or follow up on leads in her case. At a recent City Council hearing, a woman named Christine said after she was drugged and raped in September 2020, investigators closed her case without her knowledge, didn’t collect video evidence or interview witnesses, tried to make her pay over $1,000 to get her hair tested for date-rape drugs, and refused to connect her to anyone that help her figure out how to pay for the test.

“Rape is not a priority for the NYPD,” said Jane Manning, an advocate for sexual assault victims and director of the Women’s Equal Justice Project. “They could fix this if they wanted to. But they won’t give Special Victims the staff and resources to succeed.”

The 2018 report showed that NYPD leadership ignored requests to provide the SVD with appropriate staffing and resources for years, though the NYPD has about 55,000 employees and a $5.4 billion budget at their disposal to rectify these problems.

“Not a single operational issue listed in the report from three years ago has been resolved,” retired Special Victims Division chief Michael Osgood, who is still in contact with many staff members in the division, told The Appeal. “But worse than that, most of the internal systems have been abandoned or decommissioned, like quality management units and over a dozen training courses. Nothing has been corrected, in fact things have gotten worse.”

Osgood said the SVD is also now “flooded with white shields — police officers directly from patrol with no investigative experience” and that many assignments to the SVD are “political favors called ‘hooks’” which exacerbate problems at the division by adding investigators who may not necessarily care about the work.

Osgood was in charge of the Special Victims Division for nearly a decade before he was forced out in 2018. He says he was ousted in retaliation for cooperating with the Department of Investigation inquiry, despite commands from NYPD leadership to obstruct the investigation. Now, he is suing the city and several top NYPD officials over his ouster and says that the NYPD prioritized hiding the department’s shortcomings over helping crime victims.

“I saw what the inadequacies of the division are doing to thousands of victims,” Osgood said. “Why can’t the NYPD structure a correctly organized SVD? It’s a combination of sexism, ineptitude, and they’re not accountable to anybody.”

Through Riley, the NYPD said, “The accusations made by retired Chief Osgood are not based on facts” and defended the department’s process for hiring and training special victims investigators. “Special Victims Unit investigators bring a victim-centric and evidence-driven approach and work tirelessly to build the strongest possible case. The NYPD is committed to ensuring that all sexual assault survivors feel the safety and support needed to come forward and help the NYPD bring them the justice they deserve,” Riley said.

Bar graph showing changes in SVD staffing between 2018 and 2020
Source: Chart by Natalie Pryor

Between 2018 and 2020, the number of investigators at the SVD increased by 29, but the experience level of investigators has dropped precipitously, according to data from the NYPD.

The NYPD has a grading system for detectives: third-grade detectives are those with the least amount of experience; second-grade detectives are ones who have been promoted and ideally have much more experience; first-grade detectives are even higher in the ranks. In 2018, the SVD had 12 first-grade detectives and 14 second-grade detectives. By 2020, those numbers dropped to four and eight respectively, meaning the division had lost 14 higher-quality detectives. During that same time, 21 third-grade detectives were added to the division. Fifteen officers were also added, bringing the total number of police officers without detective experience working in a division that investigates extremely complex criminal cases to 63, up from 48 in 2018.

Former special victims supervisors who spoke with The Appeal said new investigators are coming into the division with very little skills or experience. One sergeant said that many of the officers joining his squad were white shields from the transit bureau. He said he could not recall any actual detectives joining his squad.

“It’s one thing to bring in someone doing investigations in another division, they have some foundation to work off of,” said retired Lt. Craig Nilsen, who worked for the SVD from 2015 to 2021. “Taking police officers off patrol with hardly any investigative skills — it’s like taking a quarterback out of high school and throwing them into the Super Bowl.”

“If you’re investigating a rape, there is no room for error,” Nilsen said. “It’s a pervasive issue.”

The NYPD defended the experience level of police officers who have joined the SVD in recent years. In an email to The Appeal, Riley said that “these are seasoned, well-rounded cops,” who “undergo comprehensive training” and are “committed to this important and challenging work.” Riley said some officers previously worked on domestic violence prevention or neighborhood coordination teams and “are familiar with investigating sensitive cases and managing large caseloads.” Regarding the significant loss of first and second grade detectives in recent years, Riley said the NYPD has had “unusually high attrition” over the last 18 months.

It is possible to get more experienced detectives to join the SVD, former supervisors and advocates say, but the NYPD isn’t doing it. Most members of the homicide squad are first- or second-grade detectives, and only 20 percent of the squad are third-grade detectives. There were no officers on the homicide squad as of 2018. Yet nearly 68 percent of investigators in the SVD were third-grade detectives as of 2020, according to data from the NYPD presented at a City Council hearing this year. And nearly one-fourth of SVD investigators are officers without detective shields.

“No police officers go into homicide, you have to be a third-grade detective to be considered for transfer into homicide, so they must have some control over it,” said Mary Haviland, an advocate for sexual assault survivors and former executive director of the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault.

Source: Chart by Natalie Pryor

The increasingly inexperienced members of the SVD also have far more cases than comparable divisions. In 2020, the city’s sex crimes and child abuse investigators dealt with an average of 47 cases each. But the city’s homicide detectives each had fewer than three cases to investigate on average in 2018, the most recent year for which data is available.

It is difficult to attract highly skilled detectives to the SVD, former supervisors say, because there are no incentives for them to join. Because of the way the NYPD’s detective grading system works, investigators with experience working for other detective squads, such as the vice enforcement or criminal enterprise divisions, may lose their opportunity to get a promotion if they move to another squad.

“If you’ve been in the precinct detective squad for 10 years, they’ll put you on the grade list [to get a promotion], but if you leave the office, you’ll no longer be on that list,” said the former supervisor, who asked not to be named because they still have ties to the division. “So they won’t leave.”

There is also little opportunity for promotion once inside the SVD, sources say. Promotions to second or first grade are discretionary, meaning NYPD leadership ultimately decides which detectives from across the department they want to award the limited number of grade promotions to. Detectives have long criticized the NYPD’s promotion system for being opaque and based more on connections than qualifications. And the NYPD’s longstanding refusal to even allocate the appropriate number of investigators to the SVD has made the impression that there is little chance for getting a grade promotion once inside the division.

“It is totally arbitrary in the NYPD the way the [grade] promotions come down,” said Nilsen, who was also a supervisor. “It’s very hard to get second- and third-grade promotions. It’s who you know and if you’re well liked. It’s extremely hard to get, only a small amount of slots come through every month, and how they’re divvied up are not necessarily fair.”

The Appeal shared its reporting regarding grade promotions with the NYPD, but the NYPD did not respond to statements made about the arbitrary nature of these promotions. Instead, Riley said that SVD investigators have attained grade promotions, but promotions have been less frequent across the department during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The inclusion of “hooks” or “contracts” in the division who use their connections within the NYPD to get a job they may not be qualified for exacerbates the problem with detective quality in the SVD. For example, if a rookie cop has an uncle who is a chief, the chief could place a call to SVD leadership and ask that they place the rookie in the division, regardless of qualifications or performance history. These transfers can be approved by the SVD’s commanding officer or by more senior leadership outside the division.

Although there is little incentive for qualified detectives to join the division, sources say that some rookie cops, including hooks, want to move to SVD because they see it as an easy way to get a promotion, since officers are automatically promoted to detective third grade after doing 18 months of investigative work.

In written testimony submitted to the City Council this year, Osgood, the SVD’s former commanding officer, said several people with intimate knowledge of the division’s personnel process told him that a significant number of current SVD investigators are hooks who got in by cashing in on political favors.

“Those unqualified persons will cause investigative damage for the next decade,” Osgood wrote in his testimony.

During a City Council oversight hearing on the Special Victims Division in October, the division’s current commanding officer, Michael King, said people who he has not selected are sometimes transferred into the division. He said in those cases, “the transfer process usually is at the discretion at a level above the Special Victims Division.”

The Appeal reached out to King about systemic issues at NYPD and its oversight of the SVD, but did not receive a response.

Nilsen said the transfers of hooks into the SVD is a symptom of the division having so few people interested in joining.

“It’s that or nothing,” he said. “You need some people there. In a perfect world, you’d have a ton of qualified candidates and you’d choose the cream of the crop, but this is what we’re dealing with.”

Before publication, The Appeal shared findings regarding hooks in the SVD with the NYPD. While a spokesperson for the department responded to many other statements shared by The Appeal, they did not respond to nor deny The Appeal’s statements regarding hooks.

Not only does the SVD currently have many inexperienced investigators, those who joined last year have also received little to no training, according to the NYPD’s own data.

In 2019, 77 investigators took a 10-day course on criminal investigations, 72 took a five-day course specifically for special victims investigators, and 71 people took a four-hour course on trauma-informed interviewing.

In 2020, only eight people took the criminal investigators course, eight took the trauma-informed interviewing course, and none took the specialized course for SVD investigators. And while more people took an additional course on the forensic experiential trauma interview technique (FETI), King said at the City Council hearing that over one hundred investigators still had not received the training and as a result are not allowed to interview victims by themselves.

In an email, NYPD’s Riley said it is not accurate to say many investigators who have joined the SVD since COVID-19 began have received little to no specialized training: “All members transferred to SVD received CIS [criminal investigations course] and SVD [special victims division investigator’s course] training.” But Riley also said the NYPD training attendance data cited above by The Appeal is accurate.

In addition, Riley said that FETI training did stop for a period of time after the department’s contract with the training vendor expired. They have now found a new vendor and “the 100 or so investigators transferred into SVD during this gap period” will get that training.

Course 2019 Attendance 2020 Attendance Length
Criminal Investigations Course 77 8 10 Days = 80 hours, 60 hours of Classroom Instruction
Special Victim Investigator’s Course 72 0 5 Days = 40 hours, 29.5 hours of Classroom Instruction
Trauma Informed Interviewing 71 8 4 hours of classroom instruction
Forensic Experiential Trauma Interview 0 49 7 days = 49 hours, 4 days of classroom instruction and 3 days of practical applications of FETI techniques.

In its training report, the NYPD noted that all training after March 12, 2020 was canceled due to COVID-19. Yet the NYPD’s report also indicates that all of the courses are a mix of PowerPoint slides, lectures, and interactive discussions, all of which likely could have taken place over online video conferences.

Asked at a city council meeting why the SVD did not use online meetings to train special victims investigators during the pandemic, King, the current SVD commander, said that the detective bureau is in charge of training, not the SVD, so he doesn’t know why they didn’t continue the trainings.

“We didn’t have enough people, and they weren’t properly trained, it was sad,” said Sgt. Mike Rothenbucher, who retired in 2020 after spending about seven years working for the SVD. Rothenbucher worked on child abuse cases and said he could not imagine having a child who was a victim of abuse and then having a detective assigned to the case who did not know what they were doing.

He also said that caseloads were so out of control, they were borrowing people from other squads just to handle the cases that were coming in, though other squads were also stretched thin. “We were robbing Peter to pay Paul,” Rothenbucher said.

When detectives failed to thoroughly investigate the cases assigned to them, deaths, further harm, and retraumatization was the result for many New Yorkers who rely on the SVD to respond to reports of sexual assault and child abuse. Being assaulted, penetrated, or violated against your will can cause lasting psychological and emotional wounds. When victims go to the police for help, but are instead treated with scorn and disbelief, it deepens those wounds.

“The failure to fix the Special Victims external systemic factors,” former SVD commanding officer Osgood wrote in testimony to the City Council, “has resulted in thousands of cases diluted, thousands of victims not participating in their investigation, [and] an array of catastrophic events.”

Several children killed in New York City in recent years were known to the NYPD before their deaths. In September, 1-year-old Legacy Beauford was killed and sodomized. The New York Times reported that police had received at least three 911 calls about a baby crying at Legacy’s home in the Bronx since May. The Times also reported that in July, a special victims detective was investigating an allegation that Legacy’s older brother was being sexually abused. According to The Times, the case was closed without any children being examined or interviewed. Legacy was killed two months later.

In an email to The Appeal, Riley said all three 911 calls were made anonymously with no call back information. “One 911 call was dispatched as an ambulance call and was unfounded,” Riley said. “The other two were dispatched as possible child abuse. Officers responded and observed the children to be in good health with no visible marks or injuries and a report was taken.”

In August, child care workers told the police both 4-year-old Jayce Eubanks and his 5-year-old brother had visible injuries. The two were interviewed at a Child Advocacy Center, but said they were injured while playing, the New York Times reported. Police said Jayce was given a referral for a medical exam, but never showed up for an appointment. By Sept. 12, Jayce was dead. An autopsy found that the 4-year-old had a fractured skull, broken ribs, a perforated stomach, and bites on his ears.

At the City Council meeting in October, King admitted that what happened in Jayce’s case “was a mistake by the investigator.” King said the investigator should have filed a report that would have required officers to visit the child’s home after he did not show up for a medical exam. Instead, no report was filed, the case was closed, and Jayce was killed.

Not all sexual assault survivors want police, prosecution, and incarceration to be the only option when it comes to seeking justice. Decades of relying on police to respond to sex crimes has not reduced the prevalence of sexual assault, nor has it consistently produced positive outcomes for victims. But survivors who seek other ways to heal, like restorative justice processes, have limited options and are often left choosing between seeking punishment or doing nothing at all.

The survivors who do choose to report their assault to the NYPD are too often met with cruelty or indifference. A survey of 20 anti-violence organizations that work with an estimated 5,000 sexual assault survivors per year across New York City found that a strong majority of providers say that based on their experiences with victims, the SVD is not doing a good job responding to survivors. Nearly all providers agreed that survivors feel ignored by police.

The NYPD told The Appeal that its 2020 year-end rape clearance rate (a measure of how many cases are closed through arrest or exceptional means, such as the death of a suspect) was 40.7 percent. But that only includes vaginal rape case and exclude all cases of anal and oral rape, a practice of undercounting rapes for which the NYPD has come under fire. Including these cases gave the NYPD a quarterly clearance rate of between 25-33 percent (the NYPD doesn’t publish annual clearance rates). This means that the vast majority of rapes reported in New York City do not lead to an arrest. And it’s possible that clearance rate is even lower, since the NYPD has historically labeled many rape cases as “unfounded,” defined as false or baseless, and those cases would not be included in the overall stats.


NYPD Rape Clearance Data

2020 Bronx Brooklyn Manhattan Queens Staten Island Citywide
Q1 34.1% 24.5% 25.4% 26.0% 0.0% 26.2%
Q2 37.5% 32.4% 6.3% 44.4% 35.7% 32.7%
Q3 29.7% 38.0% 17.5% 15.2% 13.3% 25.0%
Q4 20.8% 26.9% 20.3% 34.2% 22.2% 25.9%

New York City will soon have a new mayor, and with that, a new police commissioner. Mayor-elect Eric Adams has picked Keechant Sewell, the Nassau County chief of detectives, to become New York’s first female police commissioner. But it remains to be seen whether a new mayor and new commissioner will do anything to fix the problems that have been plaguing the SVD for years.

Another option looms on the horizon: In August, sexual assault survivors asked the Department of Justice to investigate the NYPD’s repeated mishandling of sex crime cases. A DOJ pattern or practice inquiry into the NYPD could lead to external enforcement and accountability for a department that has long operated without it. It is possible the federal government could compel the NYPD to make changes.

“I fully support a DOJ investigation,” said Osgood. “The damage caused to the SVD over the past few years can only be corrected by an outside source.”