NEW YORK - The U.S. Department of Justice has opened an investigation into the New York Police Department, probing whether the nation's largest municipal police force discriminates against the city's most vulnerable victims.
The DOJ announced Thursday it's investigating the Special Victims Division for patterns of gender-biased policing that the agency says have persisted for more than a decade.
Why it matters: The special victims division has long been underfunded and under-prioritized by top NYPD brass, which puts highly sensitive cases in the hands of inexperienced and under-resourced officers. Survivors and advocates have accused the division of bungling cases, making it tougher for district attorneys to prosecute sex offenders.
"This is happening because of the collective power of survivors. This is because survivors organized," said Alison Turkos, who has sued the NYPD for failing to investigate her 2017 gunpoint kidnapping and gang rape, in an interview Thursday. "The outcome of this report will not be a surprise to us. The outcome of this report will be our lives, our stories, our lived experiences. It will be time lost with our families and our kids. It will be our trauma on a national scale, and it's so much work and effort for us to relive that."
The details: The Justice Department will investigate reports that the unit - often dramatized on television - has failed for more than a decade to take basic investigative steps, instead "shaming and abusing survivors and re-traumatizing them during investigations," the agency said.
"Based on information provided to the Justice Department, we find significant justification to investigate whether the NYPD's Special Victims Division engages in a pattern or practice of gender-biased policing," said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the DOJ's Civil Rights Division in a statement.
Main Justice informed Mayor Eric Adams, NYPD Commissioner Keechant Sewell and Corporation Counsel Sylvia Hinds-Radix of the investigation ahead of Thursday's announcement, and they have pledged cooperation.
"Our goal is for SVD to be the national model," Sewell said in a statement. "I believe any constructive review of our practices in the Special Victims Division will show that the NYPD has been evolving and improving in this area, but we will be transparent and open to criticism as well as ideas in the process."
Adams spokesperson Maxwell Young added that the administration "welcomes the review."
"There is no higher priority for law enforcement than ensuring that victims of sexual assault get the justice they deserve and the care, support, and treatment they need," he said. "We welcome this review, will cooperate fully in this investigation, and will continue to take all steps necessary to ensure we fix problems that have been decades in the making."
The city's Department of Investigation released a scathing report in 2018 that found SVD did not handle cases properly, often when a person reporting a crime knew their attacker, which prompted the NYPD to conduct "a top-to-bottom review" of the bureau and expand it into a division.
Under former Mayor Bill de Blasio, Deputy Chief Judith Harrison took the helm promising to reform the division, but ceded her role to Inspector Michael King. He was replaced by Michael Osgood, who has claimed in a lawsuit that he was "ostracized, demoted and constructively fired in retaliation for telling investigators about problems" within the unit. Last month, Adams appointed Inspector Carlos Ortiz to run the special victims division, which will now include human trafficking cases.
What's next: The feds are investigating pursuant to the Joe Biden-sponsored Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which prohibits law enforcement from engaging in a pattern of Constitutional-rights abuses. The act empowers the DOJ to bring civil litigation, the agency noted.
Turkos, also the founder of the NYPD Survivors Working Group, said she is unsure what kind of change can come.
"I spoke to the NYPD in a hospital room when I had my rape kit done, and here I am almost 5 years later," she said. "My question is what will it take? What will it take for people to understand that survivors and victims deserve better?"