NYPD's 'Epiphany' on Rape Cases Leads to Higher Sex Attack Stats

By Murray Weiss on June 29, 2011 7:05am | Updated on June 29, 2011 7:11am

By Murray Weiss

DNAinfo Contributing Columnist

A young woman walking near the ball fields of Inwood Hill Park June 10 was grabbed by a man who forced her into a secluded area and raped her.

Over the next 36 hours, two more women were sexually assaulted in nearby Washington Heights.

Earlier that day, a 20-year-old woman was grabbed from behind while walking along West 75th Street and Broadway. Her assailant put his hands inside her underwear and tried to drag her off the street, but she managed to fight him off.

On the Upper East Side, an 85-year-old woman was pummeled around 5 a.m. and forced to perform oral sex on her attacker. Just days earlier and a few blocks away, a young woman was also assaulted, but managed to escape after screaming, "Call 911, he's attacking me!"

And on June 23 a woman was attacked in Sara D. Roosevelt Park on the Lower East Side.

All across the city, sex assaults have been making headlines recently, from posh hotels like Times Square's Sofitel, where former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn allegedly assaulted a maid, to the East Village where a fashion executive accused a NYPD officer of raping her in her own apartment.

The number of rapes in New York City has jumped 16 percent so far this year, according to police statistics.

There were 678 rapes reported through mid June, compared to 589 for the same period last year. And the number of rapes is up nearly 30 percent when compared to the same period two years ago, the figures show.

So what could explain such a dramatic increase in violent sexual assaults?

Last fall, I wrote that binge drinking by women contributed to the rape upturn. Women knocking back martinis, pitchers of beer and tequila shots leave themselves vulnerable to all kinds of trouble before the hangover kicks in. 

But there's another overarching reason for the rise in rape reports. The NYPD has tried to change its approach to sex crime victims. At one time they were viewed with skepticism by cops and discouraged from reporting the crimes.

Decades ago, before there were Special Victims Units, much less hit television shows about them, women in this city were often treated insensitively by cops and made to feel like "perps" rather then the survivors of a vicious crime.

It took years of criticism from women and victims' advocacy groups before the NYPD and the District Attorneys established units to deal with the unique challenges sex crimes presented to police work, forensic investigations and prosecutions. And soon thereafter victims finally began to feel more comfortable in squad rooms telling their personal horror stories to SVU investigators.  They started to emerge from the crime closet.

But in recent years, something began to slip. The old way of doing business seemed to seep back into the police world.  

Some blamed it on the NYPD's desire to keep crime statistics low, that cops were trying to downgrade crimes. Critics maintained that it contributed to the fact that rapes in New York dropped 35.7 percent between 2005 and 2009.

Others said too many young cops were responding to sex cases, and not enough skilled SVU investigators. Whatever the cause, sex crime victims around New York were telling hospital staff and advocacy groups once again that they were feeling like "perps."

And then "there was an epiphany" among the NYPD brass, said Susan Xenarios, the director of the St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital Crime Victims Treatment Center. It can be traced to another sex assault in Inwood Hill Park.

On Feb. 21, 2010, a woman claimed she was grabbed, pushed off a path and pinned by an assailant who masturbated against her. She reported the incident to the NYPD, but later complained that her police report left out key facts that made the case a misdemeanor, not a felony. Several victims' advocacy groups jumped in. And the precinct commander publicly apologized for the way the case was initially handled.

"They were making it difficult to report sexual assaults," said Xenarios, who was among the officials involved.

"Women who wanted to use the criminal justice system were afraid to use it," added Harriet Lessel, director of the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault.

To his credit, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly met with the advocates and last spring ordered a task force to study what was happening on the streets. While lower crime numbers are preferable to higher ones, false ones aren’t worth the paper they are printed on.  After reviewing complaints that victims' claims were often ignored or minimized by the police, the task force recommended new training protocols for officers.

"I give Kelly credit," Xenarios said. "He took the ball and ran with it."

The commissioner shifted Deputy Chief Michael Osgood, the head of the NYPD Hate Crime Task Force, to run the Special Victims Unit. The SVU became more involved in the majority of rape complaints, and not merely so-called "stranger on stranger" incidents. Closer attention was paid to all details reported by victims. And there has been a renewed synergy between the NYPD and victims advocacy groups.

Last week representatives from rape crisis and advocacy organizations sat in on the NYPD’s bi-annual special victims training sessions at the Police Academy, contributing their insights to the investigators.

"When you make these kinds of changes, you are going to have an increase in rape reports because it is (historically) an under-reported crime," Xenarios said.

"The police department is doing something right," she continued. "You want low crime numbers, but high numbers with rape matters more.

"It is a breath of fresh air."

Murray Weiss writes a weekly column for DNAinfo. He is an award-winning investigative journalist, author, columnist and editor, and is considered an expert on government, law enforcement, criminal justice, organized crime and terrorism.

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