By Katie Reilly
NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York state is launching a specialized police unit to help crack down on sexual assault on college campuses, but some victims' advocates are wary, saying law enforcement has not been effective in tackling the issue in the past.
A law signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo last month allocates $4.5 million for what officials have said is a first-in-the-nation police unit that will train college officials and local police units to respond better to sexual assaults on campus.
The law, which has been touted as the most progressive in the country, also requires all colleges in the state to implement a uniform definition of affirmative consent, distribute a students' bill of rights and adopt a policy that grants victims immunity for drug and alcohol violations.
The U.S. Department of Education is currently investigating 131 schools for violating federal law in their handling of sexual assault allegations, and New York leads the country with 20 schools on that list. Vice President Joe Biden called campus sexual assault an epidemic when the White House launched a task force to address the issue in 2014.
Proponents see New York's new police unit as a way of improving universities' response to rape reports, from services offered to victims to disciplinary investigations.
"We think it is important that this unit exists, that victims have support and information that they ordinarily would not have," said Alphonso David, counsel to Cuomo.
He said the state police unit could get involved at any point in a campus case.
Critics of the unit say sex crimes are already under-reported and increasing law enforcement's involvement could make victims warier of reporting crimes.
Many student advocates support other aspects of the law, but worry that victims might not be comfortable reporting to police.
"Students do not trust state police to respond effectively to reports of gender-based violence," said Zoe Ridolfi-Starr, a Columbia University graduate and campaign director for Carry That Weight, an advocacy group for people who have suffered sexual assault and domestic violence.
The group took its name from a performance art piece by former Columbia student Emma Sulkowicz, who vowed to carry a mattress around campus for the year leading up to her May graduation unless her alleged rapist, Paul Nungesser, was expelled.
Nungesser was cleared of the rape allegations by school officials, and he graduated in May.
"The police are not in a position to be training campus officials on how to handle sexual assault cases because they cannot do so themselves," Ridolfi-Starr said.
'NOT BEEN HANDLED WELL'
Victims' advocates say police have too often ignored or disbelieved sexual assault victims, dismissing attacks as a byproduct of sometimes alcohol-fueled campus cultures.
"There is no question that, historically, issues of sexually-based violence and domestic abuse have not been handled well by law enforcement anywhere in the country," said Christine Quinn, a special adviser to Cuomo.
The state unit will be trained specifically to handle campus cases in an effort to change that treatment, she said.
Those who advocate for greater police involvement in cases of campus sexual assault say they require more expertise than universities can offer.
One such advocate is Andrew Miltenberg, a New York attorney who is representing Nungesser, the Columbia University graduate accused by Sulkowicz of sexually assaulting her while they were both students. Nungesser is suing the Ivy League university, contending it allowed Sulkowicz to harass and defame him.
"I don't believe it was ever anyone's intention to put in the hands of students and academics or college faculty and administrators issues of this magnitude," Miltenberg said.
But without receiving specialized training, police and others in law enforcement might not be capable of responding properly to sexual assault either, said Colby Bruno of the Victim Rights Law Center in Boston, who helped design a sexual assault training curriculum for Massachusetts police.
Meghan Racklin, a New York University student, said some survivors prefer to have an avenue to report an assault other than the criminal justice system.
"They're asking for their right to education in a place that is safe and fair, and that's not the same as a criminal proceeding," she said.
The issue of police involvement is at the heart of national efforts to improve responses to campus sexual assault.
A bill recently introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives proposed a more prominent role for police, requiring that colleges refer sexual assault allegations to law enforcement. The bill is supported by some who think it better protects the rights of the accused, but has been criticized by victims' advocates for removing the option of a school complaint that does not trigger a criminal investigation.
Another bill in the U.S. Senate would require universities to enter into memorandums of understanding with their local law enforcement agencies in order to clearly share information and responsibility.
(Reporting by Katie Reilly; Editing by Scott Malone and Frances Kerry)