By Ben Fractenberg and Tom Liddy
MANHATTAN — Overall felony crime across the city is up slightly this year — bolstered by a jump in the number of rapes and felony assaults — even as the murder rate and the number of fire deaths continue to hover at levels that are near record lows, according to new crime statistics released Wednesday.
But during a press conference at City Hall, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, tried to downplay the uptick, saying that the numbers were affected by the inclusion of a new crime this year — strangulation — and increased reporting of sexual assaults.
As of Dec. 25, major crime — murder, rape, felony assault, robbery, grand larceny, burglary and auto theft — was up 0.36 percent from 2010, putting the brakes on a longtime downward trend that began in the early 1990s, according to the city's crime statistics.
The increase this past year was fueled by small jumps in the number of rapes, robberies and grand larcenies as well as a nearly 8 percent spike in felony assaults citywide.
This year saw a number of notable sexual assault patterns in Manhattan over the summer, including a dozen gropings on the Upper East Side as well as a series of attacks in Washington Heights, Inwood and the Upper West Side.
The biggest increase was in the number of felony assaults, with 18,117 assaults as of Christmas Day compared to 16,842 the year before.
But officials stressed that that discounting strangulation — the crime of choking someone, which became a felony in 2010 — overall major crime would be down for the 21st year in a row.
Former Gov. David Paterson signed the Strangulation Prevention Act last year, creating two felony level crimes and one misdemeanor for cutting off someone's blood or air supply. Previously, acts of choking, which in many cases don't result in physical injury, had been prosecuted as a misdemeanor under the harassment statute.
But under the new New York law, someone can now be charged with felony strangulation if they obstruct breathing or circulation, leaving a person unconscious or with physical injuries. If there are no injuries sustained as part of the attack, the suspect can be charged with a misdemeanor.
In the first 15 weeks after the law took effect, some 2,000 people were arrested around New York State on the charge, which was targeted at domestic abusers.
The officials said that if strangulation — a charge most notably featured in the death of fashion designer Sylvie Cachay in a Meatpacking District hotel — were not included, felony assault would have actually decreased by 2 percent and overall serious crime would have decreased by 1.2 percent.
As for the 3 percent increase in rapes, from 1,355 in 2010 to 1,402 this year, Mayor Bloomberg attributed it to increased advocacy and reporting.
"When you work with the advocates and try to get the message out if you are a victim you should not be afraid to come forward, that's what gets you higher numbers," Bloomberg said.
"It doesn't necessarily mean there [are] greater incidents of sexual crime. I think it is a very dangerous thing for people to be afraid to report when they become victims of domestic violence. There's a history of it getting worse and worse if it's not stopped."
Bloomberg also stressed that in addition to a 34 percent drop in crime over the past decade, 2011 was also the tenth year in a row that there were fewer than 600 murders, a nearly 80 percent drop from 1990, when 2,260 murders were tallied. The numbers haven't been that low since the 1960s.
Through Dec. 25, 2011, there were 499 homicides, a five percent drop from last year and the third lowest number since 1963.
"I think the decline in murders is the best indicator of how safe this city has become," Kelly said.
The city also saw a slight decrease in the number of burglaries and a more than 10 percent drop in auto thefts, a far cry from the nearly 147,000 that were reported in 1990.
Meanwhile, Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano announced that there were only 64 fire deaths in the city in 2011, the second lowest since 1916, when there were 141.
Fire and ambulance response times are also down.