UPPER MANHATTAN — Although rape reports in Northern Manhattan have dropped since the early 1990s, a recent spike in Inwood and Washington Heights has residents on edge.
Residents say several high profile rape cases, including a recent alleged attack on an Inwood school teacher by an off-duty police officer from the 33rd Precinct, are highlighting a rising problem in the area.
“I think people are waking up to the fact that we live in a culture where on some level it’s OK to abuse women,” Inwood resident Julissa Esuvio said. “The question is, now what do we do about it?”
In the past year, reported rape is up 120 percent in the 33rd Precinct, which covers the southern portion of Washington Heights below 179th Street, with 22 incidents reported this year versus 10 last year, according to NYPD statistics through Sept. 11.
In the 34th Precinct, which covers Washington Heights and Inwood above 179th Street, rape is up 33.3 percent with 16 incidents reported this year versus 12 last year.
Although DNAinfo’s Crime & Safety Report shows rape reports have dropped in the nearly two decades following 1993, an uptick in the crime was registered in 2010.
In Inwood, rape went up 29.4 percent in 2010 compared to 2009. Washington Heights saw a 40 percent increase during the same time span.
Some in the community wonder if the increase can be attributed to more stringent control over rape and sexual assault reporting in the precincts.
Last year, a former commanding officer of the 34th Precinct apologized to the community for the mishandling of an attempted rape case in Inwood Hill Park.
“I want to know how many women tried to report rapes and sexual assaults in the past, but were turned away or discouraged from doing so,” said Washington Heights resident Jane Vector.
Others say reports of rape and sexual assault in Inwood and Washington Heights over the past several years, including a rash of assaults in June and the unsolved rape and murder of a Julliard student in Inwood Hill Park in 2004, have left many concerned about a trend in the neighborhoods.
Although Inwood and Washington Heights ranked third and fourth safest in Manhattan in terms of overall safety, when it comes to rape cases, Inwood ranked ninth and Washington Heights 12th out of 17 neighborhoods in Manhattan. Morningside Heights, Harlem and Midtown ranked less safe in the breakdown.
In June, elected officials called for increased law enforcement in Upper Manhattan to combat the rise in sexual assaults.
In the meantime, some residents have chosen to arm themselves just in case.
“I carry pepper spray now and never used to,” said one female Inwood resident who has lived in the neighborhood for 15 years and asked to remain anonymous.
As fear has increased, faith in the legal system's ability to crack down on such cases has dwindled as well. Some residents said recent high profile rape cases throughout the city, such as the dismissed Dominique Straus Kahn incident and the East Village case where a jury acquitted two police officers accused of raping a drunk woman in her East Village apartment, have left them dubious that the legal system is on their side.
“As a woman I don’t have a lot of faith in the D.A. to pursue rape cases,” said Inwood resident Sandy Turner at a public safety forum held in Inwood in August.
Commanding officers of both the 33rd and 34th precincts said that rape cases are certainly on the rise in Upper Manhattan, noting that many of the cases involve people who are known to one another.
Although several high profile rape cases where the victims did not know their attacker have been central in the minds of many uptown residents, both commanding officers said the majority of the cases they see are domestic violence cases and “date rape” incidents, which often take place in neighborhood clubs, bars and lounges.
Deputy Inspector Barry Buzzetti from the 34th Precinct said a small step as simple as limiting alcohol consumption can go a long way toward reducing risk.
Both said education of women is vital toward reducing rape incidents and said police are working closely with community groups to elevate the public’s awareness of sexual assault in the community.
“We have to get the message out so our young women aren’t victimized,” said Captain Brian Mullen of the 33rd Precinct.
Several groups in Upper Manhattan are engaged by such outreach. Rape and domestic violence advocates say they have seen an increase in both “acquaintance” and “stranger” incidents.
“In the past few months, we have seen an increase in sexual assaults overall and a higher ratio of stranger assaults (compared to acquaintance) than usual,” said Lyana Fernandez, a volunteer advocate with the group Domestic and Other Violence Emergencies (DOVE).
Fernandez said many factors might contribute to the increase seen by the advocacy group.
“Stranger assault victims are more likely to report to police and to get or require medical care,” she wrote in an email, adding that “most acquaintance sexual assault victims do not need or think they need medical care, so they are less likely to seek it, just as they are less likely to report to police.”
Maria Lizardo, deputy director of client services at NMIC, an Upper Manhattan community based organization, said she has seen an increase in need uptown.
The organization, which runs the Washington Heights & Inwood Coalition Against Domestic Violence, brings together legal and community leaders with residents to address issues of violence in the community.
According to Lizardo the coalition saw 300 victims of domestic violence, which often includes a sexual element, with only a staff of two people due to budget cuts.
“When a client is assessed, we get to see the history of abuse — emotional, financial, physical and sexual,” she said. “We get the full gamut.
“We are seeing an increase. What’s happening is people are beginning to report it more often. You may see a spike because people are more aware of how to report it."
Groups like NMIC say education of the community at large is a priority and can help reduce instances of sexual violence.
In light of recent reports, women uptown have been signing up for self-defense classes taught by the Guardian Angels and sponsored by elected officials and community groups.
Although many say the free self-defense classes are empowering, they ask what is being done to educate men about sexual assault and rape as well.
“How about teaching the men in this community how to respect women?” asked one resident at a public safety meeting held in Inwood this month. “It can’t just be put on women to defend themselves.”
Groups like NMIC work with the police department and community organizations to educate all residents of Washington Heights and Inwood.
And public awareness events like the 11th Annual Gladys Ricart and Victims of Domestic Violence Memorial Walk, which is scheduled for Monday morning and winds it way through Washington Heights and Harlem, aim to teach both women and men the consequences of violence in the community.
The march honors the life of Ricart, who was murdered by her ex-boyfriend days before she was to marry her fiancé.
Through events like the march, Lizardo said her organization hopes to spread the word about all aspects of violence toward women, possibly creating a ripple effect through the community.
“The domestic violence field is doing a tremendous job at making people aware of what constitutes assault,” she said. “The more people know, the more people are willing to come forward.”