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The Appeal Podcast: NYPD-SVU’s Low Clearance Rate for Sexual Assault

With Appeal contributor Meg O’Connor

Photo illustration by Anagraph/Photo by Bumblee_Dee/Getty Images

Despite having ‎more than 35,000 officers and a massive budget of over $5 billion a year, the NYPD––and its Special Victims Unit––have a high rate of prematurely closed rape cases compared to other police departments, leading critics to accuse the NYPD of not taking sexual assault complaints seriously. Appeal contributor Meg O’Connor dug into the data and interviewed victims to find out what’s behind the trend.
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Adam Johnson: Just a quick trigger content warning, this episode describes rape in somewhat graphic detail.

Hi welcome to The Appeal. I’m your host Adam Johnson. This is a podcast on criminal justice reform, abolition and everything in between. Remember, you can always follow us at The Appeal magazine’s main Facebook and Twitter page and you can always subscribe and rate us on iTunes.

Despite having over 35,000 officers and the biggest budget of any police department in the United States, the NYPD and it’s Special Victims Unit has a shockingly high rate of prematurely closed rape cases compared to other police departments leading critics to accuse the NYPD of focusing its resources on low-level crimes like fare beating and gravity knife possession at the expense of catching rapists. Appeal contributor Meg O’Connor has dug into the data and interviewed victims to find out why and will be joining us today to discuss the NYPD’s culture of relative indifference when it comes to victims of sexual assault.

[Begin Clip]

Meg O’Connor: The city’s department of investigation released a report examining the Special Victims Division and they found that the division had only 67 detectives assigned to investigate 5,661 sex crimes. And you know, for comparison the city’s homicide squads had 101 detectives investigating 282 homicides.

[End Clip]

Adam: Meg, thank you so much for coming on The Appeal.

Meg O’Connor: Yeah, thanks for having me.

Adam: So you’ve written a series of pieces now examining the Special Victims Unit of the NYPD probably the most famous unit in the NYPD given pop culture and you have found a somewhat disturbing trend of a refusal, inability or unwillingness to prosecute or to pursue complaints about rape. This stance of course in contrast to the NYPD’s hyperfocus on what people would consider smaller crimes and trying to draw a contrast between what the priorities are of the NYPD. Can we start by telling us about the problem in general and specifically the case you document in your latest piece, Racheal Stirling, a 2014 case, to kind of give us a sense of what the real issue is here?

Meg O’Connor: Right. So basically the Department of Investigation, the city’s Department of Investigation released to report examining the Special Victims Division and they found that the division had only 67 detectives assigned to investigate 5,661 sex crimes. And you know, for comparison, the city’s homicide squads had a 101 detectives investigating 282 homicides. And that kind of happened because in 2010 the Special Victims Division started investigating misdemeanor sexual assaults as well as felony sexual assaults. So then they got thousands more cases piled on top of investigators, but the staffing levels remained the same. So detectives were just not able to fully investigate the cases that were assigned to them. And that was something that the former SVD Chief Michael Osgood pointed out over and over again. And that was something that ultimately advocates believe got him fired. So in the DoI report there’s tons of memos from Michael Osgood requesting more staffing, saying that they literally just can’t investigate all these crimes and that it’s, you know, uh, doing a disservice to victims of sexual assaults by not increasing their staffing levels. And then in November he was removed and he resigned a week later. He’s since been replaced with Judith Harrison. And so that’s kind of the background for why detectives are just really not able to manage their caseloads. Even ones who are really dedicated to what they’re doing, they just have too much work piled on top of them.

Adam: I want to be real clear because if this is a similar issue with The Trace in BuzzFeed had a report about homicides not being solved in Baltimore, and of course the Baltimore PDs response is, ‘we need more police.’ And of course community activists are saying the issue is not you need more police, you need to reallocate police or you need to reallocate funding, take it away from some of the sort of more petty or low level stuff and put it back into resources of actual solving real crimes. Because I think the, the fear of people hearing this may say, ‘okay, well, The Appeal’s advocating for more police.’ And I think that’s, it’s not sort of an issue of expanding the pie, it’s reallocating how resources are used. Is that a fair assessment? Before we drill down on this.

Meg O’Connor: Oh yeah, totally. It’s cause it’s just a matter of priorities and where they’re allocating their resources. If you have the NYPD, the biggest police force in America, with something like 40,000 officers and you’re seeing, so the data that I got for the NYPD shows that last year there were 695 arrests for rape, but by comparison last year there was something like 6,000 arrests for fare evasion and 3,500 arrests for possessing a gravity knife and things like that. And there are still thousands of marijuana possessions arrests.

Adam: Right.

Meg O’Connor: So there’s no reason to keep arresting these people for what are essentially not really crimes or there’s no victim meanwhile, you know, victims who are actually seeking help after they get raped are not finding justice.

Adam: So let’s put a human face on this. Let’s talk about some of these cases cause um, it was really good reporting, really gut wrenching reporting you did. And I recommend everyone read the article. Well both articles, there’s a few articles that she’s worked on, uh, for The Appeal and to other publications. Can we talk about the case of Racheal Stirling and how this case kind of tracks these problems so people can get a sense of what the stakes are?

Meg O’Connor: Yeah, so Racheal Sterling had this really, I mean, one of the problems highlighted in the DoI report is that because there are so many cases assigned to investigators, they’re prioritizing stranger rapes above acquaintance rapes, despite the fact that pretty much like every rape is an acquaintance rape. Most people are raped by somebody that they know. So Racheal Stirling was very violently sexually assaulted by a neighbor who she had a casual fling with in September 2014 and it was extremely violent. It lasted for something like five hours. She ended up, uh, having a concussion, a sprained hip, and a broken rib, and she went to her local precinct to report what had happened three days later on September 23rd, 2014 and the next day it was transferred to the Special Victims Division in Manhattan. It was, unfortunately for her, assigned to a detective named Lukasz Skorzewski, who, unbeknownst to her at the time, was actually being investigated by the NYPD’s Internal Affairs department for kissing and groping another rape victim whose case he had been assigned to investigate. So he didn’t, you know, suffice to say, he didn’t take it very seriously even though the same day that she came in and made the report, they did a controlled phone call, which is a staple of sexual assault investigations, where the victim calls the perpetrator while a detective listens in and records and they actually did get a confession. He confessed to penetrating her without consent and you know, that should have been, that should have been enough to make an arrest. And Racheal kind of went on with her life living in hiding a bit because he was her neighbor. She was staying at friend’s houses. She was too scared to go home and be near him and she kept calling Skorzewski, you know, asking ‘what’s going on, why hasn’t he been arrested yet? I just want to go home.’ She gave him the perpetrator’s address, phone number, Facebook information, his mom’s address and Skorzewski kept telling her, you know, ‘he’s just really hard to find, we’ve been trying to arrest him, but he’s hard to find.’ And it wasn’t until about four years later when Racheal Stirling was able to get her case file through a Freedom of Information Act request that she found that actually Lukasz Skorzewski never even attempted to arrest the perpetrator Juan Scott until 19 days after the recorded confession. And at that point he went during the middle of the day and left his business card, which tipped Scott off to the fact that Racheal had reported him to the police. He then sent her 38 text messages threatening her, saying that he was going to find her, that she had to drop the charges and so that was on October 13th, 2014 and then three days later Scott shows up at Stirling’s apartment. He pounds on the door, he’s demanding to be let in and she calls 9-1-1, she calls the Special Victims squad and 9-1-1 shows up 30 minutes later, he’s gone, she begs them to just go across the street and arrest Scott. They say ‘no, Special Victims will handle it in the morning.’ And as it turns out a couple hours after leaving Racheal’s apartment that night, he followed a 20 year old woman into an elevator in her apartment building, forced her down to the ground and sexually assaulted her as well. And two days later he was arrested for that at an address that Stirling had provided.

Adam: Okay. And so to put this in some context, you have data showing that, data specifically from Queens was relatively low, cause I want to put this in some context. So you saying 2014 which was the year of this case took place, there was 1,160 cases assigned to the Special Victims Unit that were closed using the code “C-3 Uncooperative Complainant” which you found through a FOIA request, meaning that 12.5 percent of all cases assigned to the division out of a total of 9,254 were closed due to an alleged lack of cooperation from the victim. You cite several activists saying that this is very, very unusual and very high. Can we put this in some context with other police departments in other jurisdictions? This is obviously it’s difficult to sort of tell and it is true of course that sometimes victims don’t want to pursue a case. But how can you as a journalist and how can observers and activists and lawyers be able to distinguish a legitimate desire to pursue a case versus a cop basically just brushing off a woman and calling, you know, you have, you have some examples here of police just outright interrogating victims about their sexual history, about their ‘well they kind of had it coming’ mentality. How do you make that distinction and what is the broader context of this data in terms of other police departments?

Meg O’Connor: So with the numbers from 2014 that you mentioned that, uh, all cases that are assigned to the Special Victims Divisions that would include child abuse cases and that sort of thing. And the data that we got more recently from 2018 it’s for just rape cases. And this actually came about because a New York City Council member, Rory Lancman, was questioning NYPD about our prior reporting on this and they sent him some data which he shared with us and it showed that of 1,965 rapes that were reported last year, 483 of those or roughly 25 percent were closed due to an alleged lack of participation or cooperation from the victim, which is, two advocates that number means one thing. That number means that’s cause for concern to them. It’s strange to think that one fourth of all victims that go to the NYPD to report a crime are then changing their minds and not wanting to proceed with the case, but to the NYPD, they would say that number means that, you know, they’re not pushing victims to pursue a case when they don’t want to. And I think something that it would require to contextualize this would be to look at whether or not the NYPD uses this classification, the case closure code is technically “C-3 Uncooperative Complainant,” whether they’re using that case closure code for other crimes like robbery, motor vehicle thefts, that kind of thing. And then how often are they using it for other crimes? I’m not aware of whether or not other police departments use this classification, but all police departments do use the unfounded classification, which is something that we’ve kind of seen that time and again is higher from the NYPD than from other major metropolitan cities.

Adam: You write that at 14.2 percent, the rate of unfounded rapes in Queens, meaning a false report or complaint that does not fit the definition of penal crime, is nearly twice that of any other borough citywide. 8.4 percent of victims had their rape cases unfounded in 2018 then you go on to quote a city councilman ““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. 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.” What is going on in Queens specifically? Is that just not clear?

Meg O’Connor: One thing I will say is the unfunded classification, a lot of people, former detectives, people who study sexual assaults, it’s problematic because it does not allow detectives to distinguish between whether that was a false report or whether it was a crime where the victim was still really traumatized and something did happen, but it does not fit the penal law, you know, New York State’s penal law definition of rape, so they unfounded. So it’s a really bad classification because it means two things, but it does, you know, consistently that number, the unfounded number has been much higher in Queens then in any other borough. Comparing that to FBI data from a year before or a couple of years before from 2015, which uses a different kind of definition for rape, so it’s not comparable to the NYPD data, but that unfounded number in Queens was 27 percent in 2015 so you are consistently seeing more rapes being unfounded in Queens then any other borough. And just anecdotally I have heard advocates and victims expressing that they had a very bad time reporting with detectives in Queens.

Adam: Yeah, because it seems like there’s always a fear of, you know, local politicians or even the chief of police like using this to demagogue for more resources to kind of say ‘we need more police, more money.’ From activists who are trying to get the NYPD to sort of restructure their priorities, what are the avenues that they’ve taken or is there any kind of legislative mechanism that people are working on? What is the current state of that?

Meg O’Connor: I’m not sure if there’s really any legislation that would kind of require the NYPD to just allocate their staffing and resources in a way that actually tackles crimes with victims where they’re seeking help. But the advocates community in New York City, so there’s um, all these rape crisis counselors, there’s rape crisis centers across the city. There’s actually a really big community of advocates, like hundreds of advocates have monthly meetings in every borough. They regularly meet with the NYPD and talk to them, you know, express their concerns. They’ve been able to get victims, Racheal Stirling actually had met with the NYPD in the past to tell them how terribly her case was investigated. So they do regularly at least get the time to raise their concerns to the NYPD. I know a lot of them were really worried when Osgood was forced out because he was somebody who was very open to meeting with advocates and had fostered that relationship. But I hear that Judith Harrison has made herself really approachable and accessible as well. But I think a lot of people in the advocates community still feel that, you know, ‘we’ve been talking to them for so long and they give the appearance of listening to us, but things still feel the same.’

Adam: You, there’s a pretty shocking anecdote you write about where, well maybe not shocking to many listeners, where one sergeant told, there was a woman who came in claiming she was raped and he said, he noted that she looked attractive in her driver’s license photo and then said he, um, she had alleged that the assailant had raped her while she was asleep and the officer said that he has had sex with his wife while she was asleep. So it sort of wasn’t a big deal. To what extent is there a kind of um, men looking after other men mentality and a default sense of saying, ‘okay, because our department handles’ what they would consider, you know, ‘serious rape,’ what we sort of normally view as rape that they need to sort of go through and poo poo anything that doesn’t meet the kind of Law and Order: SVU version of what we consider rape.

Meg O’Connor: Yeah. Um, well that’s kind of the basis of the lawsuit that the women you’re referring to, Jennifer Welch Demsky and Alison Turkos, filed against the NYPD, which is basically saying that rapes like theirs and other women’s aren’t being investigated properly because of the department’s gender bias to not take crimes against women as seriously as they take other types of crimes where the victims are mainly men or, you know, you had things like, actually one of the things that prompted the Department of Investigations review of the Special Victims Division was this captain of, uh, this precinct in, I think it might’ve been Greenpoint in 2017, literally said to a reporter, ‘we’re not that worried about the increase in rapes because most of them are acquaintance rapes, they’re not, you know, total abomination rapes.’ And those were his words, where a stranger is dragging somebody off the street. So it is kind of concerning that, that, and again, the DoI report found that they’re prioritizing stranger rapes, which are the kind of Law and Order: SVU rapes that you see, that are very few and far between the rapes that are actually occurring in this city. So you do have kind of a perception that, well maybe the rapes that they take seriously are the ones that are incredibly violent and rare and not the ones that are so much more likely to happen to women.

Adam: Oh, that’s like the, that’s the cost of doing business. That’s just the way it is versus ‘oh my gosh, this person doesn’t know this other person.’ And that’s somehow crosses some moral line.

Meg O’Connor: Yeah. Up until 2013 the FBI’s definition of rape was “the carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will.” And that was only six years ago. So if you were a guy, you couldn’t have been raped by the FBI’s definition of it.

Adam: Right. What is the way of making this better or getting NYPD at least at par with what other police departments are?

Meg O’Connor: I think that’s really hard to say, but I think something that always helps is just to keep watching. The NYPD has their monthly crime stats press conferences. They are kind of the gatekeepers of their own data. A FOIA request can take up to nine months or years to get back. So it is kind of really hard to find out what is going on at the biggest police department in the country and to do things like, you know, what council member Rory Lancman did to question the NYPD openly at a hearing where they had to be on the record and they promised to give him data and then, you know, sharing that data. I think that that kind of stuff is really important just to keep watching, to keep counting. There are other people who have reported, like I mentioned, the 6,000 fare evasion arrests, people who are keeping track of marijuana arrests, gravity knife arrests, just to see where they actually are putting their time and money and resources and our money and resources because we’re the ones paying for this.

Adam: Right.

Meg O’Connor: I think that is all we can do to keep them accountable.

Adam: I think that’s a great place to stop and I really appreciate you coming on. This was very informative.

Meg O’Connor: Great. Thanks for having me.

Adam: Thank you to our guest Meg O’Connor. This has been The Appeal podcast. Remember, you can always follow us on Twitter and Facebook at The Appeal magazine’s main pages and as always you can subscribe and rate us on iTunes. The show has been produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. The production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Executive producer Sarah Leonard. I’m your host Adam Johnson. Thank you so much. We’ll see you next week.