Meet Judith Harrison, The First Black Woman To Lead NYPD's Special Victims Unit

Deputy Chief Judith Harrison’s office is probably the only NYPD office painted a cheerful Pepto-Bismol pink. The walls, which are also lined with accolades and pictures from Harrison’s 22 years of service on the largest police force in the United States, were among the many things Harrison changed after being installed last November as the new head of the Special Victims Division. She is the first Black person and only the third woman to lead the unit in its history.
But make no mistake: Harrison has no plans to stop at a personal paint job. She has vowed to oversee a total overhaul and to create trust in a unit that has been beleaguered.
Advertisement
Harrison’s appointment last November came after a leadership shake-up following a scathing city report that found the sex crimes division was too understaffed to properly investigate cases. The department is also the subject of a new lawsuit brought by two women who say the NYPD mishandled their reports of sexual assault. One of the women, Jennifer Welch, says her case was wrongfully dismissed as a “dispute” after she reported that an acquaintance sexually assaulted her in 2015. The second woman, Alison Turkos, was kidnapped at gunpoint by a Lyft driver in 2017 who drove her over state lines where she was then raped by the driver and two other men; she alleges the NYPD stonewalled until her case was turned over to the FBI. The suit alleges that the handling of their cases illustrates a pattern of gender bias. (When asked to comment, a NYPD spokesperson told Refinery29: “The NYPD is committed to ensuring that all sexual assault survivors feel the safety and support needed to come forward and help the NYPD bring them the justice they deserve.”)
The department, which disagreed with some of the findings of the city report, has nonetheless promised “top-to-bottom” changes to the division. These changes include: adding investigators, remodeling facilities, requiring more training (around trauma-informed interviewing, as an example), establishing a new team dedicated to drug- and alcohol-facilitated assaults, and installing new leadership.
Enter Deputy Chief Harrison, who, after growing up in Queens with a mom who worked in admin for the NYPD, worked her way up from patrol to Commanding Officer before her promotion to Deputy Chief last July. She graduated from John Jay College of Criminal Justice with her master’s degree last year. As the first Black leader of the division, she’s already made history. But she has also been criticized by some in the press because, despite her depth of experience, she has not headed up an investigative unit. When I met her in her office on Avenue C in Manhattan this week, though, she seemed wholly focused on her mission to ensure that every survivor is supported as they seek justice — whatever that looks like for them.
Advertisement
“I know to whom much is given, much is required. I’m very appreciative of my department for having the faith in me. And I have faith in myself,” she says. “I’m happy to be in this role because it’s important work. It’s difficult work. But it’s fulfilling work.”
Ahead, we talk about the various forms “justice” can take when we’re talking about sex crimes, the changes she’s overseeing, and what attracted her to the police force in the first place.
Historically, crimes against women and sex crimes especially have just not been taken as seriously as they should be —
"Times are changing."
So what does it feel like to be a woman overseeing change at this department in this moment?
"I’m encouraged. It’s very fulfilling when we are able to give a survivor justice, regardless of what that looks like.
"The elephant in the room [is that] I’m the first Black person to hold this position, I’m the first Black woman to hold this position. I’m happy to walk through that door. But I would be more happy to hold that door open and be able to bring somebody else along. I hope I’m not the last. I think the direction in which my department is going in, I won’t be the last."
Has the department seen an increase in reports since #MeToo?
"We’ve seen an increase since 2017. We welcome that because we know these are underreported crimes. We are always asking people to come forward, and we have a dedicated hotline that’s manned or ‘womanned’ 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It rings right outside my office. It takes a lot of courage for people to [come forward], especially after something so horrible has happened to you. But we want people to trust us. We want people to know we’re here for them. We’re victim-centered."
Advertisement
What does “victim-centered” mean?
"Victim-centered means the victim controls the pace of the investigation. That from the first contact with that victim, the victim feels supported, and is informed. We have to ask you difficult questions sometimes. If you don’t understand why, it can seem like we’re judging you.
"It changes the [dynamic] when we take the time to explain. It de-escalates things. If you told me someone took my credit card and they’re using it, my line of questioning to you would be very different than for someone who is reporting a sex offense. We have to be empathetic and ask open-ended questions. And also we have to explain the questions — 'This is why I’m asking you this.' I may have to ask you what you were wearing, but the reason I’m asking is because I’m going to comb through video. When I’m combing through video, it would be nice to know what you were wearing so I can identify you in a room full of people.
"We’re making changes to our facilities. Our building-maintenance and project-management units have done a great thing with the space by keeping the survivor in mind down to the colors and the furniture. When that victim is sitting in a space and waiting for their investigator, where are they sitting? Are they sitting in an office where they’re looking at people’s 'Wanted' posters up on the wall, or do they have their own space? These improvements are important because, aside from helping survivors, they also help the investigators do their work.
Advertisement
"I think it’s important to reiterate that [survivors] can jump in and out anytime. If they decide, You know what? I don’t want to talk to you anymore. Okay. We allow them that. And if they decide, I want to jump back into this investigation, we allow them to do that, too."
Reporting a crime like this is a long process, and the police work is just one part of it. But you have said previously that your measure of success is not necessarily making the arrest. Why that distinction?
"Just because there is an arrest made, doesn’t mean that person is okay. We work with our district attorneys. We work with victim advocates. We all want the same thing: We want to rally around the survivor. It’s not always about the arrest. Even when you make the arrest, what happens to that survivor? Sometimes, what’s different with this type of work versus other crimes is if somebody robbed you and we got that person off the street, we’re high-fiving. That’s it. But we really can’t walk away from these survivors of sex crimes. We still have to make sure they’re okay, because they carry emotional scars that you can’t see.
"And not all of these investigations will end in an arrest. But success [can mean different things to different people.] You have to make sure you are putting that person in connection to services, to support groups, and you’re helping them put the pieces of their life back together."
Advertisement
Before this, you were leading officers on patrol. How is it different than what you’re doing now?
"This is very important work. We’re dealing with people who have had the worst thing happen to them. We are making an effort to be victim-centered, to try to gain trust, and let victims and survivors know they are courageous when they come forward. That they show a tremendous amount of strength. We try to support them in any way we can. It’s obviously different than patrol. On patrol, you may come in contact with someone because they lost their wallet or had a car accident. Obviously, the contact is different because the crimes are different."
What attracted you about police work?
"I grew up in Queens. My mom was a civilian member of the New York City Police Department. She worked for the police department from 6 in the morning to 2 in the afternoon. And at 3 o’ clock, she would leave and go to her job as a courier at the airport. My brother and I were home during the evening until she would come home.
"She would have police officers come by. Police officers on the 4-to-12 shift from the 105 precinct would come by. Sometimes they would come in, sometimes they would pull up in front of the house, hit the siren, and we’d come to the window and give a thumbs-up to let them know we were okay. So I grew up having really positive contacts with the police. I thought about being a police officer from a very early age because of those contacts.
Advertisement
"What drew me was I wanted to make people feel the way those police officers made me feel. They were our friends. They were part of our family. They talked to me about my basketball games. They came to barbecues.
"So I just felt like that’s what I wanted to do. I saw them as people who were there to help, and I wanted people to feel like they could come to me. That’s how I’ve always been. I’ve always been someone who wants to help someone."
Interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Advertisement

More from US News

R29 Original Series