Mapping Rape

In the fight against rape, stats are only half of the story

The "Safety Map" at nyc-safestreets.org is cheery enough, at first glance. In white are the streets of Williamsburg and Greenpoint. The East River runs blue, and McCarren Park is a patch of welcoming green. Yellow whistles mark the businesses where women who feel threatened can turn for help. Then there are the places marked "Assault Site." Those are where women have been raped since mid 2004. There are currently three. Some have yet to be posted. If a similar map existed for the 75th Precinct, in East New York, there could be more than 100 assault sites for the same time period. No such map exists. But the disparity does (even if the Safestreets map included every assault in that area), and it's part of the story of rape in New York City in 2005, as crime statistics continue to trend down and sexual assault has become the latest focus for the NYPD. Whether that police effort is bearing fruit depends on where one lives and how much stock one puts in the official numbers. Whether the cops could possibly succeed in defeating rape—by any measure—is a trickier question.

Rape for Michael Bloomberg has been akin to what murder was for Rudy Giuliani. Stubbornly resisting the free fall that characterized the other six "index" crimes and even spiking during Bloomberg's first months as mayor, rape received special attention from City Hall. Police Commissioner Ray Kelly named a citywide commander for the Special Victims Units throughout the five boroughs. The mayor OK'd a pilot program of Sexual Assault Response Teams (SARTs) in Bronx hospitals and is now expanding it citywide. Dangerous areas like the 75th Precinct were flooded with cops under Operation Impact and Operation Trident to fight rape and other crimes.

From 2004 to 2005 the citywide rape numbers fell: As of the last publicly available NYPD stats, from late December, rape was down 5.4 percent year to year. That decrease was one of the successes touted by City Hall on December 19 when Bloomberg declared, "Once again, New York City has the distinction of being America's safest big city. We've not only maintained that position, but improved upon it, making America's safest big city even safer."

That line is a regular refrain for Bloomberg because the continued drop in reported offenses was something he touted as a major achievement of his first term. But while the political importance of the crime stats is undeniable, the real-world significance of the rape numbers is doubtful.

"Rape is probably the most underreported crime there is," says Nancy Schwartzman, the founder of Safestreets, who is making a film about her experiences as a victim. "So when you see a number, you know that there's a story behind every number, and God knows how many aren't being reported."


And even when rapes are recorded, the numbers don't always mean what you think.


Even if the official numbers are taken at face value, the citywide drop in rape looks more complicated when one breaks the city into smaller parts. The NYPD did not respond to a written request for an interview about rape trends, but in the past year rape plummeted in Brooklyn and increased sharply in Staten Island. Brooklyn still reported nine times as many rapes as Staten Island. Queens was up, the Bronx was down, and Manhattan dipped slightly.

The NYPD CompStat system was developed to allow cops to use numbers to target their crime-fighting efforts, but the numbers have also become a report card on how well the police are doing in particular areas and a barometer for how safe New Yorkers feel. However, absolute confidence in the numbers would be misplaced: There have been cases of police commanders suppressing crime reports to look good. When it comes to rape, the problem isn't just that the cops might bury a report or two, or that victims might not report their attacks. It's that rape itself is a very different phenomenon depending on where you look, and a complex one everywhere.

For example, Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan tells the Voice that most of the reported rapes he's seeing are statutory in nature. There's no force involved; instead, the issue is that "even though they believe they're consenting, the law doesn't permit someone of a certain age to consent," Donovan says. Meanwhile, Queens has seen a 9 percent increase in reported rapes in the past year. The D.A.'s office there says the increase is almost entirely in acquaintance rapes, and that means that what Queens is seeing is probably not more crime, but more complaint. "I've been doing this for 23 years," says Assistant District Attorney Marjory Fisher, chief of District Attorney Richard Brown's Special Victims Bureau. "When I see an increase in only acquaintance rape it means to me that there's probably an increase in reporting, although no one can know for sure."

National estimates of the proportion of rapes that are reported range from 16 to about 30 percent. The reasons for victims' silence are obvious: the stigma attached to the crime, the fear of being blamed, or the fact that the attacker is someone you know, as is the case in the vast majority of rapes. So when the number of reported rapes fluctuates, it's possible that what's changing is the tendency of people to report attacks, not the tendency of criminals to commit them. The NYPD admits as much—at least when rapes go up: Back in 2002, when rape surged, Kelly said one possible explanation "is that it is being reported more accurately."


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