Federal prosecutors have launched a civil rights investigation into the New York City police agency that inspired “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” for alleged mistreatment of sexual assault survivors.
The New York City Police Department’s Special Victims Division, which commonly handles crimes involving rape, sexual abuse and children, is being probed to “assess whether the SVD engages in a pattern or practice of gender-biased policing,” according to an announcement Thursday from the federal prosecutors’ offices in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
The investigation was launched after the Justice Department “received information alleging deficiencies at SVD that have persisted for more than a decade, depriving survivors and the public of the prompt, thorough and effective investigations needed to protect public safety,” the announcement stated.
Prosecutors said in some cases basic investigative steps were allegedly not followed by SVD detectives and that sex assault survivors were shamed, abused and re-traumatized during investigations.
“Victims of sex crimes deserve the same rigorous and unbiased investigations of their cases that the NYPD affords to other categories of crime,” Damian Williams, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said.
New York City Mayor Eric Adams, NYPD Commissioner Keechant Sewell, and the city Law Department, all pledged to cooperate with the investigation.
The announcement came just a month after Sewell appointed Inspector Carlos Ortiz as the new commanding officer of SVD.
At the time, Ortiz said the unit was staffed with “phenomenal detectives.” But he conceded the SVD’s 300 or so detectives were overwhelmed and handled at least 50 cases per year.
“You want people to feel safe and comfortable coming to the police,” Ortiz said.
In 2018, the city’s Department of Investigation issued a report which said the SVD was understaffed, lacked experienced detectives, and that officers were often dismissive of date rape claims.
Tom Winter is a New York-based correspondent covering crime, courts, terrorism and financial fraud on the East Coast for the NBC News Investigative Unit.
Jonathan Dienst is a reporter for WNBC-TV in New York, leading its investigative reporting team and covering justice and law enforcement issues.
Corky Siemaszko is a senior writer for NBC News Digital.