in NYC Rape Reports May Point to Real Change
By Jennifer Friedlin - WEnews correspondent
NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)
recent report that rapes had increased nearly 10 percent in New York City
since the start of the year sounded alarm bells among women's groups and
officials concerned that the city's streets were becoming less safe for
women. But authorities and experts believe the reason for the sudden spike
is that more women are reporting rapes, rather than an actual rise in
the number of crimes.
Women's advocates, criminologists and the New York Police Department suspect
that the higher numbers reflect improvements in services for rape victims.
In addition, an increase in awareness about what constitutes rape, these
experts say, is encouraging more women to come forward. Although it is
still too early in the year to know whether this development reflects
a national trend, law enforcement officials and rape advocacy groups around
the country say that they believe their efforts are finding success in
the form of more victims reporting and prosecuting their assailants.
"We generally think that the increase in rape is due to better reporting,"
said Jennara Everleth, a New York City Police officer. "We have a better
relationship with the hospitals and I think the police department has
become better informed on how to deal with rape victims." City officials
recently reported that from Jan. 1 to March 11, there were 261 first-degree
rapes, up from 238 in the same period last year. They said the increase
stemmed from a rise in acquaintance rape, which surged 18 percent, while
stranger rape fell 8 percent.
Nationally, acquaintance rape makes up about 70 to 80 percent of all rape
cases; stranger rape comprises the remainder. Everleth noted that over
the past few years the police department has developed procedures designed
to be more sensitive to rape victims. Now, when a rape is reported, a
female officer is "almost always" put in charge of questioning the victim,
since most victims find it easier to talk to other women about sexual
assaults. In addition, the police department's special victims unit receives
hundreds of hours in training on how to interview victims to ascertain
whether a rape has occurred.
Better Services Means More Response
News of the rise in rape cases in New York came as no surprise to women
advocacy experts around the country, who attributed rising numbers to
the existence of more and better programs. Jamie Zuieback, a spokesperson
for the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network in Washington D.C., said
that the numbers have gone up primarily as the result of improved efforts
on the part of law enforcement and prosecutors to work with the victims
in the aftermath of an attack.
"Many victims are starting to realize that while reporting a crime might
not lead to a prosecution, it could lead to an end to the attacker committing
another rape and it could also help them to regain power," Zuieback said.
Linda Ledray, director of the Sexual Assault Resource Service in Minneapolis,
said that cities with specialized programs to address the needs of rape
victims generally report a higher number of rape cases and convictions
than cities without such services.
Programs such as the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner and the Sexual Assault
Response Team, which Ledray oversees, now assign a specially trained nurse
to work with representatives from a community's district attorney's office,
law enforcement officers and a rape-crisis advocacy group member to work
with victims of sexual assaults to treat and prosecute the crime. "In
some cases, we've seen that when a nurse who is a sexual assault nurse
examiner comes in, the reported cases of sexual assault have risen by
17 percent," said Ledray, adding that of all sexual assault claims, only
4 percent end up being unfounded.
Ledray said that her organization was now working on a formal study that
would compare statistics in cities with and without the specially trained
nurses and law enforcement teams in order to determine what impact the
programs have had on rape figures. Currently, there are some 326 such
programs around the country. Definition of Date Rape Complicates Statistics,
Prosecution While New York's numbers may offer the first glimmer of some
good news, criminologists and other experts warn that much work still
needs to be done to obtain an accurate reading of rape in America.
"Whether New York City is changing its standards or more people are coming
forward or there is more rape, it's hard to know, and the basis for knowing
keeps changing," said Alfred Blumstein, a professor at the The H. John
Heinz III School of Public Policy and Management at Carnegie Mellon University.
Varying definitions of what constitutes rape and shady practices by police
forces looking to boost their images have long skewed statistics.
In Philadelphia, for instance, the police department was forced to clean
up its act after the Philadelphia Inquirer revealed last year that officers
were coding rape complaints in a way that obfuscated and minimized the
nature of the crime, leading to fewer investigations and to lower rape
statistics. The newspaper also raised questions about police practices
in handling rape cases in Oklahoma City, Houston, Phoenix and St. Paul,
Minn. The way terminology is understood and applied in various states
and police departments also make it difficult to make sense of the nationally
While the Federal Bureau of Investigation has a standard definition for
rape, the definition, which dates back to 1927, is considered so outdated
and ambiguous that it leaves room for varying interpretations and error.
For example, the FBI defines rape as "the carnal knowledge of a female,
forcibly and against her will," without spelling out what "forcibly" and
"carnal knowledge" mean. "The uniform standard that the FBI articulates
leaves lots of room for interpretation," Blumstein said. "There are shades
of difference in how police interpret the word 'forcibly' and date rape
cases are probably the ones where the word 'forcibly' is most ambiguous."
While the FBI collects data from police departments nationwide, it does
little to account for the differences in reporting procedures and the
interpretation of terms, making it almost impossible to draw any reliable
conclusions about rape statistics.
New Initiatives Designed to Provide Improved Reading on Rape
In order to get a better handle on rape numbers, several local and national
initiatives are currently underway. Last year the Women's Law Project
of Philadelphia sent a letter to the FBI calling for a change in the definition
of rape used by the agency in its Uniform Crime Reporting System. And
in New York, the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault is working
to create a new measure for incidents of sexual violence by looking at
how the services provided by rape-crisis centers and other programs are
"Now, the only statistics are coming from NYPD," said Harriet Lessel,
executive director of the alliance. "We are trying to collect statistics
from specialized programs to find out who is out there seeking services."
Lessel is also hoping that a new New York State law, which will require
hospitals to keep track of all outpatient visits and the reasons for them,
will help to unearth more information about rape. That law is slated to
go into effect next year. Jennifer Friedlin is a freelance journalist
based in New York.
For more information:
The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network: - http://www.rainn.org
The Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner - Sexual Assault Response Team: -
The New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault: - http://www.nycagainstrape.org/
about 85 percent of
cases, sexual assaults
occur between people
who know each other."
Source: Diana Russell,
The Prevalence and Incidence of
Forcible Rape and Attempted Rape of Females, Victimology: An International
Journal 7, 1-4 (1983).