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
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.”
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 rape—not 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.
In rapes, victim and perp are usually linked by much more than the attack. “So you say, ‘Policing can help here,’ ” Donovan says, “but I think it’s more difficult to police.” Locking up rapists helps prevent future attacks because some repeat the act. But beyond that, most rapes might be beyond the reach of traditional law enforcement.
“It’s not like you can blanket a corner with cops as with guns or drugs and bring the numbers down,” says Fisher, from the Queens D.A.’s office. “With the acquaintance rapes the only things you can do are educate people, go into the schools and talk to them about the impact of rape not only on girls, but also the impact on the perpetrator, who’s going to go to jail.”