Strauss-Kahn Case Puts Focus on the Real Special Victims Squad

Posted on May 18, 2011 by UNITED PHOTO PRESS


In some ways, last weekend was not especially remarkable for the New York Police Department’s Special Victims Squad. About 30 new cases came in, typical for the citywide unit of 190 specially trained investigators and supervisors.

But of those cases — among the 6,000 sex-based cases that the squad handles each year — none carried the notoriety of the one that accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, of sexually attacking a housekeeper at a Manhattan hotel.

For some, the stunning arrest of Mr. Strauss-Kahn, who was taken into custody aboard an Air France jet at Kennedy International Airport, drew comparisons to television shows like “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” or “C.S.I.”

On television, the investigators might have dashed off to the airport to capture Mr. Strauss-Kahn themselves. In reality, three detectives from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey took him off the plane and handed him over to detectives from the Midtown South precinct in Manhattan, who in turn delivered him to the Special Victims Squad.

Indeed, the real-life detectives of the Special Victims Squad do not solve their cases in the span of an hourlong television show; their work is done more deliberately, often in the quiet spaces of police squad rooms or private hospital bays.

“The people who work in this field are dedicated to it, but I don’t think any one of them would call it glamorous,” said Deputy Commissioner Paul J. Browne, the Police Department’s chief spokesman. “It is often very gritty and difficult work that they engage in, with impressive results.” Some of their cases are well-known: the so-called preppie murder, the Central Park jogger rape, the rape and murder of Imette St. Guillen by a SoHo bar bouncer. Others are not nearly as celebrated; last weekend, in the midst of the Strauss-Kahn case, the city’s special victims detectives swung around the five boroughs, absorbing the accounts of victims of all ages.

They dealt with a 10-year-old girl in East Harlem, who told the squad’s investigators that her older cousin raped her, Mr. Browne said. They also looked into the case of a 4-year-old in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, who told her mother her uncle had pulled down her underpants. The police found the man, who admitted that he had tried to have sex with the girl and had planned to flee to Mexico, the police said. He was arrested.

Yet few cases could more ably illustrate the importance of the squad than Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s arrest.

Uniformed officers from the Midtown South precinct were the first to arrive at the hotel, the Sofitel New York, near Times Square, and they recorded the hotel housekeeper’s first account of what had occurred. Once it was clear her claim involved felonious sexual contact, they called in the members of the Manhattan Special Victims Squad, Mr. Browne said.

After Mr. Strauss-Kahn was apprehended at the airport, he was taken to the squad’s Manhattan headquarters, on East 123rd Street. He stayed there overnight on Saturday, sitting for much of the time in a chair, with his feet up on another one, and declining initial offers of food.

His accuser was also brought to the squad’s office, where she identified him in a police lineup on Sunday afternoon.

And when the first official documents from the court paperwork emerged, detailing the accusations, they emphasized the words of a Special Victims Squad detective, Steven Lane, upon which they were based.

New York City formed its Special Victims Squad a few months after the first such unit in the United States was established in Los Angeles in the early 1970s, said Linda A. Fairstein, who spent about a quarter of a century as Manhattan’s chief sex crimes prosecutor. She said the detectives in the unit have a special skills set that helps them in dealing with victims who are often frightened or reluctant to speak.

She said the experience they gain in dealing solely with such cases helps them understand the complications they can pose and the kind of skepticism such charges often encounter among the public. “The idea is that these detectives are specially trained, one, to deal with the investigation of these cases, which have very specific and often nuanced details,” Ms. Fairstein said. “And secondly, is their manner, to deal with victims who are generally, in most circumstances, emotionally traumatized because of the intimate nature of the assaults.”