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Almost a third of the city’s rape victims had at least partly negative experiences with the New York City Police Department after being raped, according to a report recently released by the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault, the city’s biggest rape-crisis organization.
The study—the most comprehensive review of interactions between rape survivors and the NYPD ever conducted—described police officers as sometimes aggressive, impatient, inappropriate, and generally insensitive to rape victims. The findings were based on information supplied by social workers and rape-crisis advocates about 200 rape cases that took place between January and September of last year.
Perhaps the biggest complaint, according to the alliance, was that police sometimes doubted survivors. “They didn’t believe her story,” one rape-crisis-center counselor quoted in the report says of the detectives who worked with her client. “It’s very upsetting because of the terrible experience she had. I mean, just give her the time of day. Listen to her.”
While the July 26 study referred to judgmental attitudes and aggressive questioning styles that could imply disbelief on the part of police, some rape-crisis workers report officers are also up-front about their doubts. “They say, ‘You’re lying’ or ‘You’re making this up’ directly to the survivor,” says Ana Ferrer, coordinator of the Sexual Assault and Violence Intervention Program at Mt. Sinai Medical Center, who notes that many of the police interactions she witnesses are positive. Of the negative ones, Ferrer says most have involved teens, an observation that’s consistent with the study’s finding that 14-to 21-year-old survivors have far more negative experiences than those in other age groups.
The sense of being doubted is not only humiliating for victims of any age, but can also lower the chances a rape will ever be recorded and prosecuted. “If disbelief is expressed right up front, that affects the survivor’s ability to continue through with a criminal justice report,” says Harriet Lessel, executive director of the alliance. According to two national estimates, only 16 percent of rape victims report the crime.
Law enforcement officials think that doubt can be appropriate at times, though. Some estimate that as many as 10 percent of all sex-crime allegations are false. Linda Fairstein, chief sex-crimes prosecutor in the Manhattan D.A.’s office, puts the figure at 8 percent. Meanwhile, the alliance’s Lessel believes the false-report rate for rape is the same as it is for other crimes—about 2 percent. “Sometimes people might recant their stories because they might not want to deal with the consequences of telling about their rape,” adds Lessel.
Whatever the true number, cop behavior used to be far worse, according to Louise Kindley, a senior social worker at the Crime Victims Treatment Center at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center who began working with New York City sexual-assault victims almost 20 years ago. “Back then it was very common for police officers to pull me aside and ask whether I thought a person had really been raped. But there is still a significant minority who are very intimidating,” says Kindley, demonstrating the crude body language of some cops who stand over exam tables barking out questions or stare off into space when a woman is telling her story.
Perhaps the study’s most surprising finding is that the majority of these unfavorable interactions involved not general-assignment, uniformed officers, who are usually younger and less experienced, but Special Victims Squad detectives. These investigators are specially trained to work on sex crimes, but were nevertheless more than twice as likely as uniformed officers or regular detectives to get negative reviews. The alliance estimates that in 10 percent of 48 randomly selected cases in the study, victims decided against filing police reports as a direct result of their experiences with Special Victims detectives.
While the police department declined to comment for this story, Fairstein, who was on vacation at Voice press time, told the New York Post that the alliance’s report was “unfair, off-base, and infuriating,” and that “NYPD Special Victims investigators are among the very best and most compassionate.”
Special Victims’ low marks may at least partly reflect the tricky job of these detectives, who are responsible for securing the precise details necessary to prosecute a case. Since rapists can be charged with a separate criminal count for each act of penetration, Special Victims investigators have to ask about exactly which body parts went where and how many times. Often they conduct these touchy interviews shortly after a woman has undergone not only the rape itself but also a grueling medical exam, which can last for hours as doctors scrape for evidence under her fingernails, examine her body for debris and bruises, and check her internally for semen, blood, and injuries.
State law has required hospitals to perform forensic rape exams on request for the past 10 years. But in that time, numerous bungled rape cases have pointed to the need for further action. In one 1994 incident, a schoolteacher who had been raped was made to wait for hours wearing just a flimsy hospital gown among handcuffed prisoners in the waiting room of Woodhull Hospital in Queens. Afterward, she received “archaic” medical treatment, according to Anna Quindlen, who wrote about the incident in The New York Times.
Six years later, Coney Island Hospital’s mishandling of a rape case highlighted the legal problems that go along with poor treatment. After the hospital lost the rape survivor’s underwear and the vaginal swabs taken during her exam, prosecutors were unable to secure a rape conviction of her assailant, who was a known sex offender.
Partly as a result, 15 of the city’s more than 60 hospitals now have rape-crisis centers, which provide on-call rape-crisis counselors and free follow-up exams. Of these, six hospitals have certified Sexual Assault Examiner programs, offering specially trained nurses and doctors to do forensic rape exams around the clock and private exam rooms just for rape survivors.
At the remaining hospitals, however, patients get uneven service and may not even be offered emergency contraception. Advocates have complained about the patchwork, noting that most rape-crisis centers are located in Manhattan, though Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens all have higher numbers of rape cases.
Local politicians seem to agree; last week, City Council members called for a task force to consider funding and other means of extending access to medical services to all city rape survivors. And on Sunday, Senator Charles Schumer announced his sponsorship of a bill that would provide $100 million in federal funding for Sexual Assault Examiner programs nationwide.
Judging from the alliance report, another, more inward-focused effort is now due from the NYPD. The push to be more sensitive would benefit more than just rape victims themselves, according to advocates.
“If the detectives can be calm and open and nonjudgmental, they’re going to get so much more information than if they let the survivor know they don’t really believe her,” says Karen Reichert, a social worker who recently trained Special Victims recruits in handling rape cases. Doctors, she says, could gain too. “If a survivor is comfortable enough to say, ‘He held my neck down,’ then they know where to look for the injuries.”