Coleen Balbert, left, the deputy chief prosecutor of Manhattan district attorney’s sex-crime unit, with Jennifer Sculco, assistant district attorney, in a scene from a new HBO documentary
For pure drama and narrative arc, it might be hard to find something more compelling than the case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who has been charged by the Manhattan district attorney’s office with attempting to rape a housekeeper in a hotel room.
But on June 20 at 9 p.m., a documentary about the people who work in that office’s sex crimes unit will air on HBO, giving greater context to what is happening in the courtrooms of Lower Manhattan. The film, titled “Sex Crimes Unit,” is the director Lisa F. Jackson’s take on the historic investigative body that was established in 1974, by Robert M. Morgenthau, the Manhattan district attorney at the time.
According to a news release promoting the film’s debut, Mr. Morgenthau — a father of five daughters — said in a statement on the film: “If you’re robbed, you’ll get over it. But if a woman is raped, I don’t think she’ll ever get over it. So they’re entitled to special consideration and special handling in the criminal justice system.”
The 84-minute film, a project Ms. Jackson began around 1996, examines the day-to-day activities of the unit, which carries more than 300 pending cases at a time. The cameras follow the prosecutors who handle the sexual assault cases. It features a the unit chief, Lisa Friel, and its deputy chief prosecutor, Coleen Balbert, as well as other assistant district attorneys — Melissa Mourges, Martha Bashford and Artie McConnell — and a senior investigator, Edward Tacchi.
Out of the 40 senior assistant district attorneys, 28 are women. Of the four cases the film tracks from beginning to end, three were led by female prosecutors and one was led by Mr. McConnell. Ms. Jackson was effusive in her praise of the female prosecutors she filmed.
“They were tenacious and compassionate and laser-focused,” she said in a statement. “Yet they showed me their true humanity in surprising ways: obsessing about TV shows, cajoling cops, having babies, talking baseball. It’s odd that a film about sexual violence can be so full of laughter and joy and the infectious pride of doing good work.”
Ms. Jackson herself was the victim of an unsolved gang rape in 1976 in Washington. But while her interest in the subject comes out of her own experience, it was not her motivation, Ms. Jackson said.
Ms. Jackson said she believed she saved her life during the attack, in which she was jumped by three men in a parking lot. Surviving the ordeal let her know there was nothing she could not endure, she said. More than a decade later, after she learned that her rape kit was destroyed because of the statute of limitations, she wrote about her experience in Newsweek, giving voice to other silent rape survivors whom she refers to as “kind of an invisible army of survivors.”
“It is like going to war,” she said. “It changes you.”
A small crew was used to make the film. Ms. Jackson, 60, filmed much of it herself. In one case, she shot a verdict in the courtroom.
In her next film, Ms. Jackson is working to document a group of three internally displaced women from Bogotá, Colombia, which deals in part with their intersection with the criminal justice system and the courts. The working title is “Three Women.”
Honoring a Century of Service by Jewish Chaplains
Early last century, many of the increasing number of Jewish immigrants to the United States were making their homes in New York City. Many of those people, in turn, were making starts in new careers, including policing.
By 1911, there were 500 or so Jewish police officers and detectives in the New York Police Department, whose leaders at that time embraced the first Jewish chaplain to help give the officers a spiritual footing. That man, Rabbi Abraham Blum, served until 1921. Since then, only two other men ascended to the highest position in the department’s Jewish police chaplaincy.
Chaplain Cantor Isidore Frank held the position from 1922 until 1966. And in 1966, the current Jewish chaplain, Rabbi Alvin Kass, took the helm. He oversaw the swearing in ceremony in which Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly became an officer.
Next Wednesday, at 11 a.m., police officials and a Jewish fraternal organization known as the Shomrim Society will hold a ceremony at Police Headquarters in Lower Manhattan to celebrate “100 Years of Jewish Chaplains in the N.Y.P.D.”
In addition, family members of the two previous Jewish chaplains will be honored, according to Detective Paul R. Daniel, an official with the Shomrim Society who is assigned to the 109th Precinct detective squad. Detective Daniel, in researching the topic, came to learn a lot about the former chaplains for Jewish officers and about their ranks in the nation’s largest police department.
Detective Daniel, who has more than 24 years on the force, said the Jewish chaplains provided a vital function in ministering to Jewish officers.
“We’re happy to know there are Jewish chaplains to keep our faith in the right direction,” he said. “If we need guidance, they are there for us.”
In a statement released by the department’s top spokesman, Commissioner Kelly said: “It says something fine about the N.Y.P.D. that it had a Jewish chaplain a century ago, when probably 90 percent of the Police Department was Irish Catholic. While the department is significantly more diverse these days, the prominent religion remains Catholic, yet the chief chaplain, Rabbi Dr. Alvin Kass, is Jewish. That’s because the N.Y.P.D. recognizes talent and seniority, and it excels at diversity.”
New Complaint Board Member
There was a new face on the Civilian Complaint Review Board on Wednesday as it convened its monthly meeting in the Bronx. There, in a seat formerly held by William F. Kuntz II, who resigned last November after being nominated to serve as a federal judge, was Alfonzo A. Grant Jr., a lawyer who graduated from Brooklyn Law School in 1998. The appointment leaves three vacancies to be filled on the 13-member board, which investigates allegations of police abuse, a board spokeswoman said.