The New York Times
By Ashley Southall
February 21, 2019
The path to Deputy Chief Judith R. Harrison’s office at the Special Victims Division in Lower Manhattan is lined with the reminders of her recently ousted predecessor.
On one wall a bulletin board displays a scientific technique that the former commander, Deputy Chief Michael Osgood, introduced for interviewing traumatized victims to help elicit more reliable testimony. Facing it is a second board that holds newspaper clippings touting the major cases solved under his long tenure.
The long shadow of Chief Osgood’s successes is not the only hurdle Chief Harrison faces. She has taken over the unit at a critical time when the Police Department has come under fire for its handling of sex-crime cases, and she has never before overseen a large investigative bureau.
“I like a challenge,” Chief Harrison said as she settled in a chair in her office. “I believe in this work.”
Chief Harrison is the first black officer to lead the Special Victims Division, but that powerful precedent has been tempered in police circles by worries that her lack of experience with investigations could hamper her. A police officer for more than 21 years, she has never worked as a detective or run an investigative division.
“She’s behind the eight ball, and she has very big hurdles to go over,” said one veteran police commander who did not want to be named critiquing the commissioner. “She’ll be at the mercy of the detectives below her. Most of them will not be honest with her.”
Still, Chief Harrison, who worked for four years as the commanding officer of two precincts in Queens, the 112th and then the 109th, said her selection was about more than identity politics.
She said her approach would be informed by all of the times as a precinct commander that she had responded to sexual assaults and handled chaotic crime scenes, while simultaneously directing arrests and caring for victims.
“I didn’t get the position because I’m black or female,” she said. “I think that my reputation precedes me. And I know that. I’m a hard worker, I’m a quick learner.”
As a supervisor, Chief Harrison earned a reputation as an accessible leader with a sense of mission. Community leaders said she was skilled at working with residents to solve local problems and always stressed to them that she worked for the public.
“She meant that,” said Alfredo Centola, president of the Whitestone Civic Association, which regularly met with Chief Harrison when she was the commander of the 109th Precinct. “You saw it. You felt it. You knew it.”
Maureen Curtis, who oversees criminal justice and court programs for Safe Horizon, a nonprofit serving crime victims, said Chief Harrison’s lack of experience in investigations may not hinder her. Other police leaders have had success without experience in the areas they worked, she noted.
“The best leadership in N.Y.P.D. were those that could earn and maintain the respect of the officers they’re supervising, as well as interact in a meaningful way with the communities,” she said. “Those are the ones who will effect change.”
Since assuming command, Chief Harrison has said her goal is to restore rape victims’ faith in the police and to make the division a place where victims and their trauma are at the center of every decision, from the color of the wall paint to staffing decisions. For her, the measure of success will be when victims feel that coming forward to the police is not a mistake, regardless of whether there is an arrest.
“I want them to feel under my watch, ‘Come forward, we’re not going to re-victimize you,’” she said.“We’re going to respect you, and we’re going to try to help you regain the pieces of your life.”