|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 former managing director of the International Monetary Fund, of sexually attacking a housekeeper at a Manhattan hotel.
For some, the 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 Paul J. Browne, the 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 that 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, Mr. Browne said, they called in the members of the Manhattan Special Victims Squad.
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-century as Manhattan’s chief sex crimes prosecutor. She said the detectives in the unit had a special skills set that helped them in dealing with victims who were often frightened or reluctant to speak.
Ms. Fairstein said the experience they gained in dealing with just these kinds of cases helped them understand the complications they could pose and the kind of skepticism such charges often encountered 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,” she 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.”
Each of the city’s boroughs has a Special Victims Squad. There are even more specialized units, some for children and one that keeps tracks of sexual offenders who are deemed likely to be repeat offenders and to track down prior offenders who do not register as required under sex-offender registration laws.
Mr. Browne said the detectives chosen for such work were among the most experienced and had more seniority. They must undergo additional special training in areas like collecting DNA evidence, interviewing traumatized victims, preserving crime scenes and understanding the psychology of rapists and other sex offenders.
They must understand the process for examining the victims physically, although nurses do the actual examinations and are also “cross-trained in child abuse and child sex abuse,” Mr. Browne said.
The investigative work can often hinge on physical or forensic examinations, starting with basic elements like clothing. “If someone grabs you, there may be skin cells or some other forensic evidence on the clothing,” Mr. Browne said.
Then, depending on the nature of the attack, a medical professional known as a sexual assault nurse examiner — someone with extensive training in examining victims of sexual assaults — will perform tests like swabbing the inside of the mouth, or conduct detailed examinations of other areas.
As Ms. Fairstein said, a sex-attack victim must be examined “over every inch of her body, head to toe, and back to front.”
The medical team, after making sure victims are not physically injured, will also take photographs of them, Mr. Browne said. He said the detectives prepared notes on the victim’s condition, to accompany the photographs and the victim’s account.
Mr. Browne said 18 hospitals in the city had sex assault response teams, made up of sexual assault examiners and counselors to speak with the victims.
In the case on Saturday, after the housekeeper told the detectives of the Special Victims Squad what had occurred, she was taken to St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center, which has one of the sex assault response teams, he said.
All the forensic work is done inside hospitals and police laboratories, and getting final results of DNA evidence tests takes at least eight days and usually longer. Therein lies another difference between television and realty. “Unlike TV,” Mr. Browne said, “it does not happen between commercial breaks.”
Ms. Fairstein agreed, saying that television’s depiction of police investigative work was often “glammed-up or exaggerated.” But she emphasized that in Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s case, the New York police moved with “amazing speed.”
Even so, the real-life arrest probably could not compare with the television-ready plots where crimes are committed and solved in an episode. That, Ms. Fairstein said, is not how “any police department I am aware of works.”