Police Told Rape Victims They Would ‘Look Like a Slut on Trial’: How Law Enforcement Fails Women

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NYPD Special Victims detective Rafael Astacio failed to properly investigate rape and sexual assault claims, according to a memo in which a top prosecutor said detectives were closing cases too quickly and threatening victims. Andrew Savulich/New York Daily News/Getty

When an Icelandic woman passed out on a sofa in a New York City nightclub in March 2009, a construction worker started kissing the unconscious woman and then dragged her out of the club. The young tourist awoke to find herself inside his apartment, naked underneath him as he raped her in bed.

The man dropped off the woman halfway to her house with $20 for a taxi. She just wanted to go home, but two of her friends convinced her to go to a hospital, which called the New York Police Department’s Special Victims Squad—the police detectives who investigate sex crimes. When a rookie detective with that squad, Rafael Astacio, interviewed the victim, she said she wasn’t sure about moving forward with the case, as she was preparing to return to Iceland.

Astacio closed the case, saying later that the victim was uncooperative. But she was certainly cooperative when a cold-case detective got a DNA hit that matched the rapist in her case more than a month later. She identified her attacker in a photo array and he was arrested and later sentenced to more than three years in prison.

And while Astacio had told the Manhattan District Attorney’s office that security at the club, Marquee, was uncooperative and that he wasn’t able to obtain any surveillance footage, a D.A. investigator who went to the club on a different case had no problem obtaining footage of the rapist kissing the woman and then dragging her out of the club. Astacio later admitted he never actually tried to obtain the video at the club.

Those missteps by Astacio, described in a confidential 2013 draft of a NYPD memo obtained by Newsweek, were emblematic of more serious misconduct during that period by both that detective and by other investigators in the squad. In the memo, the chief of the D.A.’s Special Victims Bureau at the time, Lisa Friel, criticized detectives with the NYPD Special Victims Squad for closing cases too quickly, for not completing all investigative steps and for the way they treated victims.

While victim advocates say the NYPD has improved how it handles sexual assault and rape cases in recent years, Friel’s assessment of NYPD detectives is important because it is a rare look inside the cloistered world of sexual assault investigations, especially given her top role in the D.A.’s office. (Friel left in 2011 and is now the NFL’s special counsel for investigations.) And the friction between Special Victims police and Special Victims prosecutors is troubling, given the two organizations must work together to successfully investigate and prosecute sex crimes.

The allegations raised by Friel and first made public here come at a time when sexual assault is at the center of debate in the U.S., after Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein resigned from his company amid allegations he sexually harassed and assaulted many women over the course of more than 20 years. Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, for example, is currently under fire for his 2015 decision not to prosecute Weinstein for allegedly groping Italian model Ambra Battilana Gutierrez.

In an October 10 statement defending his decision, a top Vance staffer blamed NYPD detectives for arranging a controlled phone call between Weinstein and Gutierrez without consulting with his prosecutors about what was necessary to capture on the call in order to prosecute a sex crime. Evidence of friction between police and prosecutors as they investigate and prosecute sex crimes can also be found in the memo, in which Lieutenant Adam Lamboy says he and Friel disagreed over how investigations should be conducted. 10_19_Lisa_Friel_Special_Victims Lisa Friel, former chief of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Special Victims Bureau, said that NYPD Special Victims detectives closed cases too quickly and threatened victims. Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for HBO

If sexual assault victims feel they will be shamed or disbelieved when they report an attack to police or prosecutors, overall reporting of such crimes will decrease, says Christopher Bromson, executive director of the Crime Victims Treatment Center, a nonprofit that helps survivors of sexual and domestic violence. “The NYPD has made great strides in supporting survivors of sexual assault who chose to make a report, but some survivors still don’t have a positive experience with our criminal justice system,” Bromson tells Newsweek.

Police officers are the first and perhaps most important figures of authority encountered by sexual assault victims who report the crimes, but federal investigations have found that many departments across the country fail to properly investigate claims of rape and sexual assault.