NYPD Has Been Quietly Revamping How It Treats Crime Victims. The Results Are Impressive.

Susan Herman.
Susan Herman.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Drew Angerer/Getty Images and NYPD.

For years after 9/11, when victims’ families trudged to New York Police Department headquarters to collect whatever belongings of their lost loved ones had been found, police offered the courtesy of ushering them to private rooms for these highly charged moments. Eventually, it dawned on the police that the same dynamics apply to families of all murder victims. When they show up at any police property room to retrieve a package containing a victim’s clothing and other possessions, says Susan Herman, a deputy NYPD commissioner, “Everybody wants to look at it before they walk out, but they shouldn’t have to do it in front of lots of strangers in a noisy space.” Thanks to that insight, NYPD now routinely reserves quiet, private places for grieving families to “take a moment and be by themselves,” as Herman puts it.

For a gargantuan agency that in a year’s time comes in contact with millions of distraught people, it’s a tiny gesture. But when dozens of such innovations get strung end to end, as NYPD has laid out on Thursday in a wide-ranging report on its efforts to improve how it eases crime victims’ burden, the cumulative effect adds up to a much grander proposition: that the marriage of modern policing and crime-victim services is more than an accidental byproduct of victims’ calls for help, but in fact can help make a city safer.

Three years ago, I took a detailed look at this theory of policing and Herman’s unusual role in it as it began. NYPD’s commissioner at the time, Bill Bratton, had recruited Herman out of academia and a long career in victim advocacy to head a new Office of Collaborative Policing. Her mission: to make nice with citizens and advocacy groups and repair the breach of trust between police and residents. This was Bratton 2.0. The crime fighter credited with wrestling rampant violence to the ground, often by using racially fraught tactics, now sought to fix what broken windows policing had broken. If those most at risk of crime trust the police more, so the thinking goes, then more crimes get solved, or better yet prevented.

In Herman, Bratton had chosen not just any victims’ advocate, but one who argued that for all the gains won by the victims’ rights movement, America has largely failed to make good on its promises to give victims true justice. There’s convincing evidence on her side, starting with the plain fact that huge numbers of even violent-crime victims nationwide don’t trust the police enough to report their crimes. And the vast majority of victims who do go to the police receive none of the services set up to help them—often because they don’t even know about them.

And so, once installed at 1 Police Plaza in 2014, Herman set about the task of scrutinizing NYPD’s everyday functions and asking, she says, “If you interact with victims at all, how could you make their experience better? How do you change your practices to become more efficient, more accessible, more understandable, and less burdensome to victims?”

The results, nearly five years into her tenure, range from simple tweaks, like the changes in property-retrieval protocols, to far more elaborate initiatives. The department now uses smartphones and other digital technology to streamline the blizzard of paperwork and interviews that victims endure. Four-foot-by-eight-foot privacy screens and waterproof sheets now block the view of bodies and blood at crime scenes. Homicide detectives now must provide regular updates on investigations to designated family contacts. Officers on patrol now can conference in sign-language interpreters via video links to communicate with the deaf. Child trauma response teams now reach out within 24 hours to young witnesses of domestic violence. Many of the initiatives carry no cost, but the centerpiece program—placing two victim advocates in all 86 police precincts and public housing police units to give immediate care to victims—costs the city $15 million annually. The list of 101 initiatives is infused with trauma-informed practices, a raft of changes in police training, and an overriding goal to connect more victims with available counseling and reimbursement for funerals, medical costs, lost wages, and other disruptions in their lives.

“This is an amazing step forward,” says Heather Warnken, a visiting fellow at the U.S. Department of Justice who analyzes crime-victim policy and research. Warnken crunched national policing data earlier this year to conclude that a large majority of police departments fail to connect victims into the multibillion-dollar network of support services established  under the Victims of Crime Act. The new NYPD report shows a commitment that “really sets them apart from the majority of agencies around the country,” she says.

For its sheer scale, NYPD’s effort stands out, but it’s not alone, Warnken says. She points to a long-standing, federally funded program at the International Association of Chiefs of Police to improve law enforcement–based victim services. Progress in that program’s rollout has been glacial, but Warnken says that’s because it is strict about using evidence-based methods to measure results and set policy.

On that score, NYPD has a long way to go. Because its collection of victim-services improvements is so varied in substance and timing, there’s no practical way to measure the effectiveness of the program in isolation. The department does survey crime victims about their interactions with police, but that effort mainly gives feedback on individual officers. An ambitious system to track public sentiment about NYPD is still in development. The department will commission a formal assessment of its showcase program, the precinct-based victim advocates, but that too is a ways off. For now, there’s no real way to connect the dots on whether all this effort improves the public’s trust in NYPD and then whether that in itself causes crime reductions, especially at a time when so many other factors contribute to giving New York bragging rights as the nation’s safest big city.

Even if Herman’s innovations achieve their ultimate goals, NYPD faces other critical challenges. No. 80 on Herman’s list describes how outside victim advocates act as a check on the quality of rape investigations, but the department’s Special Victims Division remains in turmoil over findings that its understaffing neglects victims. Other points of friction exist in marijuana enforcement, gang monitoring, anti-violence strategies, and accountability for police brutality. Then there’s the reality that Herman and NYPD aren’t about to address one of the biggest barriers to helping victims: the linking of most victim aid to the functions of police and prosecutors, effectively leaving most victims—those that do not report their crimes or whose reports never result in prosecution—in the cold.

This is not to say that repairing trust as a crime-reduction strategy is failing. A solid body of research says it’s critical to success in policing. For now, though, New York’s efforts are a work in progress. But NYPD’s victim-services initiatives can at least take credit for a simpler virtue: treating victims better for its own sake. In the coming days, NYPD, with help from the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance, will ship bound copies of its report throughout the criminal justice community, including to about 100 big-city police departments. The list of innovations represents a grab bag of ideas. If simple human compassion can be the goal of a police department with 55,000 sworn officers and civilians—dwarfing all other cities’ departments, and larger even than all but four states’ combined law enforcement forces—then maybe others will decide they too can make the effort to give that a try.