City Coucil Member Laurie Cumbo leads a press conference (photo: William Alatriste)
Reported rapes are on the rise in New York City. Despite an overall downward trend in felony crime, 2015 saw a 6.3 percent increase in the number of rapes reported, up to 1,439 from 1,354. Police Commissioner Bill Bratton and others have attributed this increase to the “Cosby effect,” meaning more women are coming forward to report rapes, including from years before, rather than more rape actually being committed.
In the early days of 2016, three reported incidents of rape - all stranger rapes - have garnered attention: two allegedly committed by for-hire vehicle drivers and the horrific alleged gang rape of an 18-year-old in a Brownsville playground. Most rapes are not widely reported in the media - most are committed by someone the victim knows.
Both the increase in rapes reported in 2015 and the Brownsville incident have made rape more central to public policy conversation.
While the city has implemented a number of measures in recent years to encourage victims of sexual assault to come forward, the question remains, what can elected and appointed officials do to help prevent these crimes from happening in the first place?
Of the 1,439 reported rapes last year, 166 were committed by strangers (up from 117 in 2014), and 14 took place in for-hire vehicles like taxis and Ubers (up from 10 in 2014). Speaking about this increase on WNYC radio last week, Bratton encouraged women going home late at night from bars or clubs by cab “to adopt the buddy system.”
That comment was met with widespread criticism, prompting a press conference outside City Hall on a frigid Monday morning, where City Council members and women’s rights advocates denounced the remark.
“It should not be the sole responsibility of a woman to guarantee her safety,” said Council Member Laurie Cumbo, chair of the Committee on Women’s Issues. Cumbo and others outside City Hall called on the NYPD to focus on preventing sexual violence and catching perpetrators, rather than telling women what they should do to avoid becoming a victim.
It’s important that in response to rape, the police department is not “encouraging women to implement buddy systems, but rather saying ‘you have a right to be safe,’” chair of the Committee on Public Safety, City Council Member Vanessa Gibson added.
Three bills have been introduced in the City Council which aim to better protect women from sexual violence:
- Intro 762, which would require all taxicabs, hail vehicles, liveries, black cars, and luxury limousines to have a panic button installed that would allow a passenger to send a distress signal to law enforcement. There is currently no upcoming hearing scheduled on the bill, which has ten sponsors and has not been moved on since it was introduced by Cumbo in April, 2015.
- Intro 869, which would require the NYPD to add sex offenses to its crime status report. They would be listed in total and by type of sex offense separately. The bill has eight sponsors and does not seem to have an upcoming hearing.
- Intro 868, which would require the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications to create a plan that would allow the public to communicate digitally with emergency responders using the City's 911 system. The system would allow the public to send digital communications including text messages, videos, and photographs. The bill was discussed by the Committee on Public Safety and the Committee on Technology at a hearing Thursday morning.
Those gathered outside City Hall on Monday demanded that these bills be passed, that the city allocate more resources to increase monitoring of high incident locations and improve access to rape crisis counselors and centers, and that the NYPD come out with a comprehensive strategy to address the rising number of sexual assaults.
A spokesperson for the NYPD informed Gotham Gazette that over the past two years, with support from the Mayor and the City Council, the NYPD has made several changes to better deal with sexual assault, including:
- Increasing the size of NYPD special victims division, adding 30 investigators to make 240 total
- Creating a DNA Cold Case Squad, Bronx Child Abuse Squad, Analytic Squad, and increasing the Sex Offender Management Unit by seven investigators to total 20 officers
- Increasing specialized training for the special victims division from 5 to 10 days per year
- Increasing efforts to encourage reporting of sexual assaults, distributing 32,000 cards and 16,000 flyers in 2015 which explained sexual violence and encouraged people to call the special victims division
Yet all of these legislative proposals or policy changes by the NYPD are designed to either stop a sexual assault from taking place once the threat of assault has already been made clear, or to help victims after they have been violated. In order to truly reduce the number of sexual assaults that take place, both advocates and the federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention say ‘primary prevention’ or prevention education is the most effective method.
Primary prevention aims to stop sexual assault by focusing on potential perpetrators, rather than the victims, and can involve educating high school, middle school, or college-aged students. Prevention education raises awareness of sexual abuse and harassment, promotes positive social attitudes and a negative view of sexual violence and harassment, and promotes bystander intervention.
“We are not going to end sexual violence if we are not being preventative in our nature and engaging those who are committing the violence,” said Quentin Walcott, co-executive director of CONNECT. The organization works to end violence against women and girls by addressing “the root cause of violence” through “engaging men and boys to change the attitudes and belief systems” under which “men think that they’re entitled and privileged to treat women in a particular type of way.”
Sonia Ossorio, president of NOW-NYC, told Gotham Gazette that engaging “men and boys in the discussion of what is manhood, what are healthy relationships, and what does consent look like” through comprehensive sexual education in schools at a young age is “critically important” to reducing the number of sexual assaults that take place.
Some may take issue with teaching sexual education and primary prevention to middle or high school students, but, as Council Member Gibson pointed out in an interview, “the bottom line is our children are going to learn about sex one way or another” and, she said, it is certainly preferable that children learn about sex through trained educators.
The five individuals who are accused of gang raping an 18-year-old in Brownsville are between the ages of 14 and 17. One of the rape suspects, 15 years old, is about to be a father.
Yet educational efforts like the prevention programs “shown to prevent sexual violence perpetration,” according to the CDC Injury Center, are “not really standardized” in New York City schools, but rather are “up to the principle,” Min Um-Mandhyan, director of development and communications for the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault, told Gotham Gazette.
The city does have some preventative efforts in place, but those mainly involve bystander intervention training for adults. Ossorio says the city’s district attorneys “work with nightclubs to partner with them and have an open line of communication to reduce assaults that may happen.”
A spokesperson from the Manhattan DA’s office told Gotham Gazette that its Sex Crimes Unit regularly conducts trainings to help individuals better identify and encourage reporting of sexual assault through sessions in conjunction with the New York Nightlife Association, tailored toward workers like bouncers, managers, and bartenders, and through training with representatives from local colleges and universities. DA Vance also awarded $38 million to cities across the country last year to test a backlog of rape kits.
“Providing [prevention] education in the schools for age-appropriate levels is something…the city could hopefully provide some more funding for. We know that it is important in terms of prevention.” Jennifer Wyse, a social worker at Safe Horizon’s Community Program in Brooklyn, told Gotham Gazette.
When asked whether the City Council would like to see more primary prevention in schools, Gibson responded, “Absolutely,” and added that several Council members have put forth legislation on sexual education in schools.
“We obviously need to have this conversation during the budget…we’re very supportive of any effort [to reduce sexual violence] because look at what’s happening in this case in Brownsville,” Gibson said, referring to the fact that the alleged perpetrators were teenagers. “Any way we can prevent these cases, we support.”
“New York State has really put more funding behind” primary prevention programs, Um-Mandhyan said. The New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault is one of six Regional Centers for Sexual Violence Prevention in New York State that implement primary prevention and community-based strategies to decrease sexual violence. In April, 2015, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the allocation of $4 million in federal funding to the six regional centers.
“Unfortunately, New York City doesn’t really have a separate funding stream for rape crisis programs for sexual assault,” Um-Mandhyan said. “City Council is going to launch into budget season, so we’ll really be pushing for a funding stream.” Pointing to the disparity in access to rape crisis programs and resources for victims in Brooklyn and the Bronx, Um-Mandhyan said the Alliance would also like to see the city allocate more resources to underserved neighborhoods.
At Monday’s press conference, Gibson called the increased number of sexual assaults a call to action. “We are in the midst of a new budget season, so we have a very unique opportunity. We must ensure that we not only talk about it but we ‘be about it.’ We must put money where our commitment is…We must be sure that we provide the resources and programs necessary.”
When asked whether primary prevention education is something the City Council would consider implementing in New York City’s schools, Cumbo told Gotham Gazette that she hopes to pass a bill, Intro 952, at the next City Council stated meeting, which would require the Department of Education to report information regarding school compliance with state regulations governing comprehensive health education and sexual education for students in grades six through twelve.
There was another bill introduced in the City Council, however, not mentioned at Monday’s press conference, which would require the Department of Mental Health and Hygiene to develop a sexual assault prevention and response curriculum that would include training in affirmative consent for students, faculty, campus safety officers, and college administrators in New York City’s college campuses, as well as provide better information to students about available services for sexual assault victims.
The bill, Intro 517, was laid over by the Committee on Higher Education in February, 2015.
What advocates who work with sexual assault victims want to happen, Um-Mandhyan said, is “to see the city adopt sexual violence prevention education in public school curricula. It’s important to work with youth as prevention tends to work more effectively with younger people…We believe when you get to college level, it’s already too late.”
Gov. Cuomo made has made campus sexual assault a significant focus, pushing New York colleges and universities to adopt new measures related to preventing and responding to rape.
Bratton’s ‘buddy system’ comments were quick to elicit condemnation by City Council members, who called on him to come out with a comprehensive strategy from the NYPD to reduce sexual assaults.
But with the CDC and organizations that work to help victims of sexual assault pointing to primary prevention as the single most effective method to reduce the number of assaults that occur, the responsibility for coming up with that “comprehensive strategy” to prevent and reduce sexual assault, including providing funding for primary prevention programs and legislation to implement them in schools, rests with city lawmakers, not the NYPD.