From Safe Slope: An Open Letter to the NYPD (72nd and 78th Precincts) about Their Responses to Sexual Assaults

HOLLAnote: The following open letter is from our friends at Safe Slope, in response to the South Slope serial rapist.  We stand in support of their efforts.

September 28, 2011

We are a grassroots group of women and men called Safe Slope, and our work is focused on providing community-based responses to violence. Safe Slope formed in Brooklyn in August 2011 to respond to multiple sexual assaults that occurred in Park Slope and several surrounding neighborhoods. Our goal is to work with neighbors to empower and protect the community, and to help create a citywide network of those seeking to do the same.

First, we applaud the NYPD’s decision to be more open with the public and to take these assaults more seriously by investing extra resources, such as more officers patrolling the neighborhood and doing more to increase awareness, such as handing out brochures at subway stations.

However, we are deeply concerned with some of the NYPD’s responses—both before and after the increased police presence that began the week of September 18th.  We have compiled examples we have seen with our own eyes and ones that have been reported to us by community members. We are writing so that we may highlight practices by officers that we believe may continue to harm women in our community. We are not bringing these to your attention as mere criticism. We are concerned about the impact of such actions and it is our hope that we can provide realistic solutions to truly make our community safer.  Please note that these examples may not be true for all officers; however, this pattern by any number of officers is counterproductive to increasing safety in our community, and these actions must be addressed.

Issue 1: Showing Videos of Attacks to Women: We were alerted by community members that police officers have been going door-to-door to show women videos of the assaults. While we appreciate that the police have been doing more direct outreach to raise awareness, we believe this is a harmful and unnecessary practice. Showing these videos can re-traumatize survivors of sexual assault. Considering that 1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime, there is at least a 1 in 6 chance that showing these videos will be incredibly traumatic for female viewers.

  • Recommendation: We do not believe that showing videos of assault is a safe, productive, or necessary practice. Showing these videos is likely to do more harm than good. Instead of showing the videos, officers could explain, in sensitive terms, the prevalence of recent assaults, increased risk for violence in the neighborhood, and ways to protect oneself and one’s loved ones. If officers do choose to show the videos, please make it optional and, prior to showing the video, explain to women that the videos are extremely violent and may have a triggering effect on survivors of violence.

Issue 2: Following Women: While it is a relief to see more officers patrolling our blocks at night, women have reported that some officers have made them feel uncomfortable while walking alone at night. One woman explained that on her walk to the subway, two officers followed her closely, without explaining why or communicating with her at all. Considering that many women are already on-edge about potentially being followed by a perpetrator, closely following women without letting them gain your trust will make many women feel unsafe. In a similar fashion, some women have reported that officers in police cars have stopped their vehicles directly in front of them to stare at them and then drive away without a word.

  • Recommendation:  We applaud the attempts of some officers to escort women in the area, but to do so without communication or context is ineffective and could be emotionally harmful.  Most women (and folks of other genders) do not like to be followed closely by strangers—even by those wearing a uniform. If your intentions are to make women feel safer, then communicate sensitively the increased risk of violence. Explain why officers are on the street and respectfully ask for permission to escort a woman to her destination.

 Issue 3: Promoting Victim-Blaming Messages: We have received reports that multiple women have been told by officers on patrol that they are making themselves targets of violence by wearing clothing items like shorts, dresses, or skirts. These messages place the blame on women, including the survivors of assaults, in our neighborhood. Women should be able to wear whatever they want without fear of violence. It is the job of the police to protect people from harm—not blame them for it.  

  • Recommendation: Blame for sexual assault should be placed on perpetrators only. This type of messaging from the NYPD demonstrates a lack of sensitivity toward violence against women. The NYPD should raise awareness about the assaults and should not provide any type of information that places the onus of responsibility on victims or potential victims.

Issue 4: Trivializing Violence: Since the March 2011 assault, there have been many examples in which the NYPD did not take people seriously when they reported attempted assaults or when community members requested information about the crimes and police response. One recent example occurred the weekend of the September 11th. After hearing about a recent attack, one woman saw a pair of officers in the Prospect Avenue R-train station. She took the opportunity to ask a female officer if there would be an increased police presence due to the assaults. The officer responded, “We have real things to worry about—like terrorists.” Aside from being disrespectful and trivializing violence against women, responses like these are likely to make women feel even less comfortable reporting a rape to the police, possibly leading to long term negative impacts.

  • Recommendation:  All NYPD officers should be sensitive to the prevalence and prevention of ALL types of violence in the community.  All NYPD officers—not just SVU—should understand the scope and severity of sexual violence in NYC and take violence against women seriously.

Issue 5: Providing Only English Language Materials: The vast majority of information disseminated by the NYPD (e.g., police sketches with narratives, Crime Stoppers van announcements, etc.) is being provided in English only. These strategies are likely to be ineffective, as they fail to include a significant portion of our community’s population.

  • Recommendation: Please provide Spanish-language materials in South Slope. Latinos are a significant portion of our community’s population and need to be informed to help build awareness and response. Moreover, Spanish-speaking Latinas should have equal access to information that may protect them from violence.

Issue 6: Educating Women Only: We have noticed, by and large, that when handing out brochures, officers are only providing them to women. This sends the message that only women are concerned about sexual assault and that it is a women’s issue.

  • Recommendation:  People of all genders are responsible for understanding and preventing sexual assault. Awareness-raising should be directed to men so they may help protect their neighbors and pass the information on to female friends and family members. In fact, some members of Safe Slope are men and we have received a high number of volunteer requests from men. Many men care about this issue and want to be involved in addressing and preventing violence. 

Issue 7: Inconsistent Information or Withholding Information: Officers on the street have reported inconsistent information (e.g., number of cases, location of attacks) when asked about the assaults. During the summer, many officers were stationed on 5th Avenue after one attack, but officers refused to provide information to those who asked why they were stationed there. As a result, it was Safe Slope members that put up flyers in the community to raise awareness about increased violence against women.   Many community members told us this was the first they heard about these crimes. Furthermore, many citizens of the surrounding communities have been relying on the latest news from blogs instead of the police, who have the most accurate information on crime reports.

  • Recommendation:  If the NYPD truly cares about the marked increase in violence against women, please take the time to educate officers, providing them with consistent, up-to-date information about each case. Additionally, proactively offer this information to the community so they can be aware.  As Safe Slope members did over the summer, clearly post flyers and make information available as soon as assaults are reported. 

Together, these examples demonstrate a disappointing pattern of insensitive, misinformed responses to sexual assault in our community. While some officers have demonstrated best practices in their response, we are concerned about the impact of the practices we have highlighted. Such actions may further harm the community rather than protect the community. These practices cannot go on.

We urge the 72nd and 78th Precincts to immediately provide comprehensive sensitivity training to all officers.

The community does not need increased police presence alone. We need solutions that are sensitive to the complexities of sexual assault.  We are willing to provide further information or guidance, if needed. Some of us are community educators and we are willing to create and lead an appropriate sensitivity training.

Thank you for addressing the concerns of our community.

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