By the time the U.S. Justice Department announced last month that it would investigate the New York Police Department’s handling of sex crimes, rape survivors and victim advocates had spent years pushing city and state officials to act, the New York Times reports. In public testimony and private meetings with the Police Department, City Hall and the attorney general’s office, they detailed encounters with investigators in which their experiences were dismissed and their cases fumbled. They gave interviews to city investigators, who blamed police leaders. Some filed a federal lawsuit accusing the police of gender bias. Even Gloria Steinem, the feminist leader, joined a protest at City Hall. Despite their efforts, no one with power over the department compelled it to fix longstanding problems in the unit responsible for investigating sex crimes, the Special Victims Division. Officials failed to institute uniform policies for handling cases or stabilize leadership in the unit after a period of turnover. They failed to quell the anger of survivors who then turned to the Department of Justice, writing about their grievances and prompting federal prosecutors to take the rare step of investigating the police.
Now, the Police Department could be forced to adopt changes supervised by a federal monitor, an expensive and time-consuming practice that already governs its political surveillance and stop-and-frisk practices. “We tried all these avenues and we got nowhere,” said Mary Haviland, former executive director of the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault, the author of a 12-page letter that advocates sent to the Justice Department last July. “We came to the point of feeling that DOJ was our only help.” The local inertia shows how efforts to hold law enforcement accountable in the largest U.S. city have stalled since the #MeToo movement prompted the nation to grapple with the pervasiveness of sexual assault. The cases that defined #MeToo largely involved white women leveling accusations against powerful men in prominent industries like film and politics. In New York, the vast majority of the 8,600 sex crimes reported each year involve Black and Hispanic victims who know their assailants in some way. The police department’s response to those assaults has been “negligent and sexist,” violating the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause, 17 survivors and two of their mothers told the Justice Department.