Panel Seeks More Police Training on Sex Crimes

By John Eligon (New York Times)
June 2, 2010

Responding to concerns that sexual assault complaints have been mishandled by the police in New York, a task force appointed by Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly has recommended new training protocols for officers dealing with sex crime victims.

The task force has called for a video to be shown to officers that emphasizes the Police Department's policies mandating that crime reports be taken, and the procedures and sensitivity required in dealing with victims of sex crimes, said Paul J. Browne, the department's chief spokesman.

The task force, which began its review in April, is also looking at specific cases to check if complaints were handled appropriately by the police. The task force is expected to meet with Mr. Kelly on Thursday to present its initial list of recommendations.

The review was prompted by complaints from sex crime victims and rape treatment counselors, who told police officials that allegations by women who went to the police had been ignored or minimized.

Like all major crimes in New York, the number of episodes classified as rape has declined significantly, down 35.7 percent from 2005 to 2009. Yet since 2005, the number of sex crimes classified as misdemeanors has risen by 6 percent.

At the same time, there has been a sharp increase in the rate at which complaints of forcible rape have been dismissed by the police as false or lacking enough evidence to take to court.

"This was just an accumulation of stories: five boroughs, over and over again," said Harriet Lessel, executive director of the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault, an advocacy group for rape crisis programs. "It was just sort of like, 'Wow, something different is going on here.' In terms of not taking reports, I'd have to say that this seems like the highest number that I've ever heard."

One common theme among women who have come forward, according to counselors and victims interviewed by The New York Times, is that too many inquiries are being handled by inexperienced patrol officers, not detectives from the Special Victims Division, who have had specialized training in dealing with sex crime cases.

Michael J. Farrell, the Police Department's deputy commissioner for strategic initiatives and a member of the task force, said the situation was unavoidable.

"Even though the staffing in Special Victims was increased considerably over the years, there obviously are not sufficient personnel for them to take responsibility for all sex crimes in the city," Mr. Farrell said.

Mr. Kelly and several of his top aides met in April with rape treatment advocates, who laid out their concerns and provided examples of cases they believed the police had mishandled.

Shortly after the meeting, Mr. Kelly impaneled the five-member task force.

In addition to Mr. Farrell, the task force consists of two former sex crime prosecutors who now work for the Police Department, the head of the department's housing bureau, and Denise E. O'Donnell, a former state commissioner of criminal justice services.

The group has interviewed sex crime prosecutors, social workers and police investigators, and is reviewing all relevant police training as well as the staffing needs of the Special Victims Division and which cases it handles, Mr. Browne said.

Since February, police officials have been auditing several sex crime categories to check for accurate classifications, Mr. Farrell said. Of the more than 700 sex crime complaints reviewed so far, Mr. Browne said, 7 have been reclassified.

Mr. Farrell said there could be legitimate differences of opinion about how a complaint should be classified.

"We want the classification to be the crime that's spelled out," he said, "not to simply shift everything into a higher category in order for it to be investigated by a particular unit."

The Times interviewed eight women in New York who said they were frustrated by how the police had responded to their complaints of being sexually assaulted. Most of the women went to the police and the hospital within days of the attacks. But the circumstances of their cases did not make the facts easy to classify: Most knew the men they said had attacked them; two had spotty recollections of the episodes; some were drinking; and few had witnesses or glaring injuries to corroborate their assertions.

"Those are the realistic dynamics of sexual assault, but they're actually looked at as red flags to not believe the victim," said Joanne Archambault, the executive director of End Violence Against Women International.

Although there are techniques to resolve questions about the circumstances, experts said untrained officers might think they were signs of a weak case and then prematurely dismiss a complaint.

Several counselors who have sat with victims while they spoke to the police said inappropriate questions were common: Why didn't you scream or call for help during the attack? When was the last time you used drugs? Are you just trying to get revenge because he does not like you? Do you pick up guys often?

Susan Xenarios, director of the Crime Victims Treatment Center at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center, said, "If I walk into a precinct and if I am disregarded or criticized or told this isn't a rape because I don't have any memory, I'm never going to go to anyone."

Debbie Nathan of Manhattan was not pleased with how the police initially classified her case.

Ms. Nathan, 59, recalled walking in Inwood Hill Park on a wet, chilly February afternoon when a man grabbed her from behind. He dragged her into a wooded area and said he wanted to have sex with her.

The man rubbed his pelvis against her, his arms still wrapped tightly around her torso, she said. Then he let out a groan and ran off.

She said she called 911 three times before the police arrived, about two hours after her first call. The officers seemed ill equipped to handle a sex crime complaint; they showed little compassion or knowledge about what questions to ask, she said.

After several police supervisors showed up at her apartment to follow up, and stepped out repeatedly, apparently to call a detective from the Special Victims Division to consult, they told her that they had been instructed to classify the complaint as forcible touching, a misdemeanor.

Then Ms. Nathan, a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, went on the offensive. The day after she was attacked, she posted a message about it and the police response on a community blog, she said. Adriano Espaillat, the state assemblyman for the area, said that after he heard Ms. Nathan's story, he had members his staff call the police because "it seemed to me obvious that this should have been classified as a higher crime."

The police eventually upgraded the attack from forcible touching, which has a maximum sentence of a year in jail, to first-degree attempted rape, a felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

Later Ms. Nathan got a copy of the original police report and saw that it had omitted crucial details that would make it easier to prosecute her attacker if he was caught.

"I just hit the ceiling," she said.

She said that the detective assigned to her case and Lisa Friel, the sex crimes chief in the Manhattan district attorney's office, both told her that the attack should initially have been classified as an attempted rape. Ms. Nathan said Ms. Friel also told her that she was not surprised by the lower classification — that the same thing was happening to many other women.

At a community forum days after Ms. Nathan was attacked, Deputy Inspector Andrew Capul, who was then the commander of the 34th Precinct, which includes Inwood Hill Park, apologized for the handling of her case.

"There absolutely were some breakdowns in communication, and those things should not have happened," he said, according to a videotape of the forum posted online. "We hope they never happen again. Some people may be reprimanded as a result of not following through properly in this matter."

The Manhattan district attorney's office would not comment on Ms. Nathan's case.

But Cyrus R. Vance Jr., the district attorney, said in a statement that he believed that the police commissioner's task force was a positive step toward improving "the overall responsiveness to sexual assault victims."