A few days ago, something extraordinary happened: The New York City Police Department apologized to a sexual assault survivor and the LGBT community for the way in which it had defamed her and our people 24 years ago. In his letter, Police Commissioner James O'Neill said to the survivor that the police had "let her down in almost every possible way," compounding her pain. "For that," he added, "I am deeply and profoundly sorry." He also said, "I am deeply saddened by the rift this case created between law enforcement, brave survivors of sexual assault, and the LGBTQ community, with whom we work so closely each day."
Some of my friends have asked me, "Why is this important?" My response is, "WTF - are you kidding me?" Here's why.
This is the first time in anyone's memory that the NYPD apologized for something it has done. Moreover, the apology is direct and without equivocation. Commissioner O'Neill deserves a lot of credit for having the courage to do something none of his predecessors were capable of doing over the last 173 years. Other law enforcement agencies across the country are also notoriously reluctant to ever admit they've done something wrong for fear of backlash from officers, unions, and plain old macho stubbornness. When the head of country's largest police force--with a $5.2 billion budget and over 38,000 officers--breaks this pattern, it truly is a big deal. Hopefully, it will lead other police leaders to have the same decency and commitment to reform.
Second, the apology is something the survivor has long requested - not for herself but, in her words, "so the NYPD would have to take a public stance in support of survivors, so that there would be a public statement that would make it clear that it was safe and beneficial for survivors to come forward to the police, and that they would not be attacked or pilloried by the police." Does the expression of regret make the years of pain and anguish go away? Of course not. But it's a step in the right direction. She said, "I didn't think it would matter personally, but it does."
Third, it is a powerful reminder of the importance of memory and perseverance, particularly in this age of the 24-hour-and-forgotten news cycle. This was exemplified within and outside the police department. Internally, two of the detectives who worked on the case more than two decades ago--Detectives Sarah Mather and Andrea Sorrentino--always believed the survivor and pressed for the case to be reopened. Externally, New York City's close-knit community of sexual assault service providers never let it go either, bringing it up time and again in meetings with police brass. Together, this doggedness led the current, and highly regarded leader of the Special Victims Division, Chief Michael Osgood, to devote the significant resources required to resurrect and solve this very cold case.
And finally, the apology recognizes the harm, hurt, and anger the LGBT community felt when one of its own was defamed because of her sexual orientation, namely that she made up the rape to publicize a planned rally protesting violence against lesbians. In his apology the commissioner called this "egregious" and said, "This police department has come a long way since 1994 ... in our understanding of, and respect for, the LGBTQ community."
As with the survivor, does this make up for years of disrespectful and callous treatment of LGBT people? Of course not. But, again, it is a positive and productive step and one that will filter down through the ranks.
It is rare for many of us--for good reason--to recognize when a long-oppressive institution does the right thing. This is one of those times.
MATT FOREMAN is senior program director of gay and lesbian rights at the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, overseeing the fund's extensive support for the drive for equal rights and opportunities for LGBT people. He was executive director of the the New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project from 1990 to 1996.