Last week, the Voice revealed that a cop had audiotaped his superior officers during roll calls at the 81st Precinct in Brooklyn for more than a year.
Those tapes show vividly that NYPD street cops are told by superiors to “downgrade” crime reports whenever possible, such as convincing a victim to file a “stolen property” complaint even after being physically assaulted in a robbery.
Now, the Voice has learned that the NYPD downgraded a felony sexual assault in a park in upper Manhattan earlier this year to a misdemeanor.
The incident was only reclassified and upgraded to a felony after the victim, journalist Debbie Nathan, protested and the Manhattan District Attorney took the extraordinary step of interviewing the police officers involved and confirming her account. The commander of the 34th Precinct, Deputy Inspector Andrew Capul, was forced to apologize publicly to Nathan in a community hearing. Capul was recently transferred from the precinct.
The Voice contacted the NYPD for comment, but received no response.
Harriet Lessel, the director of the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault, an association of a wide variety of groups involved in sexual assault treatment and prevention, says that NYPD downgrading of sexual assaults from felonies to misdemeanors has become a growing problem over the past 18 months.
“We have been hearing that this is something that has been happening more frequently,” Lessel says. “We feel that these programs are the canaries in the coal mine and we have brought it to the attention of the Police Commissioner. We are trying to figure out how to do something about it.”
In an interview Sunday, Nathan, 59, described the sequence of her attack. She says she was walking in Inwood Park on the northern tip of Manhattan on the evening of February 21. She says she was grabbed by a young man who pushed her off the path and into the woods.
She couldn’t free herself of him. Twice, she says, he told her he wanted to have sex with her. He grabbed her from behind and pinned her arms at her sides. He began masturbating against her, for a couple of minutes, had an orgasm, and then fled.
“I was terrified for my safety and my life,” Nathan says.
Nathan quickly made her way out of the park to a café and called 911. She knew that her attacker had entered the woods, and there were only a couple of ways out of the park. She figured if the police arrived in time, they would be able to catch him.
Thirty minutes passed, and no police arrived.. She went home, and dialed 911 again. Another 45 minutes elapsed, and the police still hadn’t arrived, she says. It took two hours and three 911 calls for the cops to finally reach her apartment.
Six officers went over her complaint. She told them her attacker told her his name was Michael, and he was 17. He was wearing a tan jacket. She told them about being pushed into the woods. She talked about what he said and what he did.
“I stressed that I was at all time overpowered,” she says. “The female officer, I thought she was acting weird. She wasn’t writing anything down.”
The officers interviewed her for two hours. At some point, one of them said they didn’t know how to classify the crime, so they called the Special Victims Unit, and spoke to them without Nathan being able to hear what they were saying.
After awhile, the Special Victims unit told the officers that the crime was misdemeanor “forcible touching.”
Nathan insisted that it was an attempted rape, a felony. “I argued that the force used against me, the masturbation, and the veritable kidnapping constituted far more than a misdemeanor,” Nathan says.
The officers ignored her protests and left.
On February 22, Nathan called the Inwood Safety Patrol, a citizens group which monitors neighborhood safety. That group called the local state assemblyman, Adriano Espaillat, and the 34th Precinct commander to complain.
After that, Nathan’s complaint was upgraded to felony attempted rape. At a packed community meeting, the precinct commander apologized to Nathan, and promised an investigation.
“There were some breakdowns,” Deputy Inspector Andrew Capul, the precinct commander said at the meeting, blaming miscommunication and inexperienced officers. “It should not have happened. We are conducting a more detailed investigation, and following through on this matter.”
Capul on May 2 was transferred to Patrol Boro Manhattan North.
Nathan was in for a second shock when she got her complaint report. “My story had been scrubbed of everything except the fact that the perp grabbed me, pushed me, and mentioned sex,” she says. “Almost every detail of the crime was missing from the report.”
The officers had left out her being overpowered and pushed into the woods, the duration of the assault, the masturbation. The report, she says, even said she had reported no sexual assault.
“After special victims downgraded my crime to a misdemeanor, an officer from my precinct tweaked my report so it described a misdemeanor,” she says. “They had written non-report to conform to a misdemeanor. They were so sloppy, they forgot to rewrite the report to conform to felony.”
Nathan says she was told by Assistant District Attorney Lisa Friel, chief of the Manhattan District Attorney’s sex crimes unit, that there was no question that the crime she described was a felony.
Friel, Nathan says, interviewed the police officers involved and learned that they admitted to omitting many details from the report. “It is difficult to believe the omissions were accidental,” Nathan says.
Nathan says she spoke with rape crisis advocacy groups, which told her that her case is not unique, that it has been happening across the city over the past year-and-a-half.
“The difference here was that I was a well-educated journalist, someone who knew how to get action,” she says.
Lessel, the director of the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault, tells the Voice that her group met with Police Commissioner Ray Kelly about three weeks ago.
She says the commissioner pledged to look into the issue, and created an internal task force to study the problem.
“We’re seeing it as both a patrol and a special victims problem,” she says. “This is something that is going to take time. Things aren’t going to change after one meeting. And it’s in everyone’s best interest to have accurate statistics about rape, even if the numbers go up. How can we do what needs to be done if we’re not getting the right information from the start?”