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The training that could reform the Special Victims Division

HERTZ 1: Desdemona Meck is a writer and photographer, living in Brooklyn. 8 years ago she went to a police station in Harlem to report a sexual assault. She remembers her interview with a detective

MECK 1: She she was an older detective and kind of came from the standpoint of telling me that I needed to learn how to protect myself. Um, and that I needed to not be in these kinds of situations and to be more careful and more responsible [0:16]  

HERTZ 2: And those detective’s words have stuck with her, throughout her recovery.

MECK 2: I still have those words that that linger in my head saying, You should have done something different. [0:07]

HERTZ 3: It’s not just Meck who’s had these experience with the NYPD.

Lynn Hecht Schafran is an attorney and who’s trained judges to work with survivors of sexual assault. She says that too often reporting these crimes to police can itself be a traumatising experience. So much so, that it leads victims to stop cooperating with detectives.

HECHT SCHAFRAN 1: If you’ve just been through a terrible event and this person continuously treats you as if you are lying and you are the suspect you’re going to walk away. [0:10]

HERTZ 4: And that victim testimony is often key in sexual assault cases – without it, a lot of perpetrators can’t be prosecuted. But Hecht Schafran says many cases don’t even get that far – often victims don’t report crimes, because they’ve heard of the police’s reputation from other survivors.  

HECHT SCHAFRAN 2: In the victim’s immediate circle of family and friends the word goes out ‘I went to the police, they treated me like garbage, don’t do it’. So the broader effect is so you are literally making victims by refusing or failing to treat the first one who comes to your attention with dignity and respect [0:23]

HERTZ 5: Back in 2016, the NYPD introduced a new interview training for sex crimes detectives to help solve these kinds of problems. It’s called Forensic Experiential Trauma Interview or FETI. Josie Torielli is a social worker with the NYC Alliance Against Sexual Assault. She says FETI upends previous assertive interviewing strategies, because it lets the victim lead the interview.

TORIELLI 1: So instead of a more traditional method of what happened what time what’s next and looking for kind of a sequential narrative it starts from a place of ‘what can you tell me about your experience or what can you remember?’ [0:15]

HERTZ 6: Torielli thinks a lot about training. Part of her work includes preparing doctors and nurses to become sexual assault forensic examiners.

HERTZ 7: A recent Saturday afternoon was the last part of a three-day course for registered nurses. They’d learnt how to conduct pelvic exams and collect evidence – now, it was the class on communication.

HERTZ 8: Six nurses in scrubs and white coats sit in a semicircle. In the center is Verena Salvi, who works with Torielli. She’s role-playing as an accuser. One by one, the nurses take turns interviewing her, practicing how to find out what happened, without making the survivor uncomfortable

NURSE 1: If that’s what you believe, that’s ok [CONTINUES UNDER TORIELLI 2] [0:10]

TORIELLI 2: It really can be an up ending of the way that they’re used to practicing and so it’s acquiring a whole different skill set, which sometimes can be a big ask of people. [0:12]

HERTZ 9: Emergency professionals are used to trying to find out what’s happened, as quickly as possible. And breaking out of the habits of the emergency room – or police beat – can be difficult for both nurses and detectives. The NYPD’s FETI interviewing training lasts seven days. And changing that culture, takes even longer explains Christopher Bromson, the Director of the Crime Victims Treatment Center, an independent advocacy group.

BROMSON 1: It’s important to know that in the past ten or so years things have come a very very long way and that is not to say that we don’t still have a very long way to go. [0:10]

HERTZ 10: In March, a report from the New York City Department of Investigations confirmed that there were problems in the Special Victims Unit. The report praised praised the FETI program, but it also said overall the detectives were still inadequately trained. And that report got the attention of the City Council.

ROSENTHAL 1: I mean these are people who’ve been traumatised like no other. And so far, the NYPD has not prioritised these individuals. They’ve not prioritised them. [0:15]

HERTZ 11: Helen Rosenthal represents the Upper West Side in the New York City Council. She’s proposed a bill that would require detectives to have 10-weeks of training before interacting with victims. Now Special Victims Division detectives get just over a four weeks of training – for the Motorcycle unit, it’s 6 – 8.

ROSENTHAL 2: We need enough detective and well trained detectives in order to deal with this these very complex and um individual cases [0:13]

HERTZ 12: The NYPD did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story. But it’s said in a press release online that the Department of Investigations report is misleading and incomplete. In April, Chief Terence Monahan, appeared before the City Council to say the NYPD is confident in their detectives.

MONAHAN 1: We know that responding properly to sexual assault requires special skills. Simply put, special victims investigators are the best-trained sex crimes investigators in the country [0:13]   

HERTZ 13: But Christopher Bromson, with the Crime Victims Treatment Center, disagrees.

BROMSON 2: But there’s a lot of work left to be done to make SVD something that we would freely suggest to all survivors. I think we have a little bit to go until we get there. [0:11]

HERTZ 14: For now, Rosenthal’s bill is still going through the City Council and the NYPD has until the end of May to formally respond to the Department of Investigations report

Stevie Hertz, Columbia Radio News


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