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On the precinct level, more differences emerge. Weighted for population, the top precincts for rape are in Harlem, the Bronx, and Bed-Stuy. The least dangerous areas are Staten Island's south shore; Douglaston, Queens; and the Upper West Side. But the numbers show rape moving in contradictory directions on this uneven playing field. In the past year, for example, rapes doubled to 10 in Manhattan's Fifth Precinct, covering Chinatown. Fifty-one rapes were reported in East New York, but that represented a 35 percent decrease.
Given the small number of reported rapes, compared with crimes like assault or burglary, a few cases can have a dramatic effect on the headline numbers and percentages. Accuracy becomes all the more critical in detecting trends.
Sometimes, the best check on the accuracy of crime stats is the word on the street. But who talks about rape? "I actually haven't come in contact with someone on my block who has been raped, and I have been here 37 years," says Edna Johnson, president of the 79th Precinct Council in Bed-Stuy. Out in East New York, Precinct Council VP Anthony Mammina says he's never heard anyone complain about rape in the area. "They come in about everything else," he says. "When the inspector every month reads the stats they don't put [rape numbers] in. He does the big crimes: murder, robbery, car theft, stuff like that." Rape, Mammina adds, "is not something that people bring out in public anyhow."
One place people do bring up rape is with triage nurses at hospitals, and across the city, rape advocates tell the Voice they see different trends. "I have not heard from rape crisis programs that there has been a significant dip," says Harriet Lessel, executive director of the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault. Estimates of how many rape patients report their attacks to police range from 10 percent to more than 60 percent, depending on which hospital you ask.
Even the reasons why women don't report rapes differ by area. At Beth Israel Hospital on East 17th, rape crisis center director Carole Sher says a lot of victims aren't reporting because their memories have been made hazy by drugs or alcohol. But Elaine Garbity, program coordinator of the sexual assault treatment program at North Central Bronx Hospital (a forerunner of the SARTs now being placed in every municipal emergency department), sees a different population. "We don't get a lot of cases of drug-facilitated sexual assaults," she says. "People aren't clubbing in the Bronx. The kinds of sexual assaults we get are as a result of intimate partner violence, and we get a lot of adolescents." The attacks among teens spike in the summer and during school breaks.
Garbity's program was launched seven years ago to offset a lack of services for Bronx women and men. "I think it's a good beginning. I don't think it's corrected the problem," she says. "There's a lot of people in the Bronx who need help." Other areas of the city are also still underserved. Advocates and prosecutors generally agree, however, that services for rape victims have improved greatly in recent years, whether in terms of counseling, the use of DNA evidence, or the attitude of police. "I would say 99 percent of the time police are sensitive to the victim," says Lillian Tsai at Long Island Hospital's rape crisis program.
But those advances apply to what happens after the assault. Indeed, the traditional focus of rape advocacy programs has been on the victim. There now seems to be a new emphasis on prevention. Some advocates have headed into the schools with programs aimed at getting kids to identify and stop assaults. The NYC Alliance recently convened a task force on prevention. "The point of it is to really try to start looking at what communities can do to prevent sexual assault," says Lessel, "and it might be very different depending on what that community is: Is it a geographic community? Is it a cultural community? Is it a college community?"
The task force findings aren't likely to include things like "avoid dark alleys." For the most part, rape doesn't happen like that. "Frankly, given that so many rapes take place in homes or places where people find themselves together it's not about not walking on the street to keep yourself safe from rape," says Lessel.
Of course, rapes by strangers still occur in the city. Those types of attacks, advocates say, take place the ways one would expect: in a secluded place, usually involving a weapon, sometimes a push-in, sometimes in a cab. "It's a crime of opportunity," says Sher. But the opportunity for most rapes comes not on a street corner but in a bedroom or a bar, sometimes aided by a casual friendship or even a marriage.
This is the real flaw in police statistics on rapenot that they undercount how many attacks occur, but that measuring police effectiveness by the number of rapes implies that cops could somehow prevent most of them. If there were a cop on every street corner, the police could probably stop almost every thief. That's because "most robberies don't occur between people who are familiar with one another," Donovan explains.