Reported cases of rape have been rising in New York City, shooting up sharply after a lull in the early days of the pandemic, and continuing now at a rate of about five a day.
At the same time, the NYPD’s Special Victims Division, which investigates sex crimes, is under fire. Last year, the U.S. Department of Justice opened an investigation of the division after multiple allegations of officers failing to take basic investigative steps and rape survivors saying they were shamed during investigations.
Meanwhile, the number of hours the NYPD spent on trauma-informed training for sexual assault victims also declined by 89% in the 2021-22 fiscal year.
The process of reporting and investigating a sexual assault or rape can be complicated and intense. We spoke with a rape crisis counselor, attorneys and an expert on sexual violence prevention about how to report a sexual assault or rape and what to expect in the investigation.
What is the first thing a person should do if they are sexually assaulted or raped?
Christopher Bromson, a rape crisis counselor and the executive director of the Crime Victims Treatment Center, advised seeking medical care first. The nonprofit provides free support services and legal advice to rape and sexual assault survivors at four hospitals between Manhattan and Brooklyn.
“One of the best ways to get tied into support services in New York City is to go to an emergency department, a number of which are actually specialized in helping sexual assault survivors,” said Bromson.
Experts said it’s best to preserve the evidence by avoiding bathing, showering, using the bathroom, changing your clothes, combing your hair and cleaning up before you go to the hospital. If you do any of these things, however, you can still have an exam performed.
Crisis counselors are on call at emergency rooms to support survivors. Bromson said they provide services regardless of a person's immigration status, gender, sexual identity, English language proficiency or drug use. Survivors can also call his or another rape crisis program directly rather than being connected at the hospital. In addition to the Crime Victims Treatment Center, organizations such as the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault, the New York State Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Safe Horizon can provide survivors with advocates and other support services.
While at the hospital, survivors always have the option of making a report to the police there, but should never be pressured or required to do so. There's one exception, however: If the person who has been assaulted or raped is a minor, anyone who is a mandated reporter (including medical staff, social workers and others) must report it, according to a RAINN state policy database.
About 20% of the people the Crime Victims Treatment Center works with choose to report during their hospital visits, Bromson said. In those cases, the special victims unit officers will come, take a statement and begin the investigation.
Hospital services should be free of charge. According tor New York state’s Forensic Rape Examination Direct Reimbursement Program, survivors do not have to use their private insurance benefits, Medicaid, Medicare, HMO or any other insurance program to pay for the forensic exam, especially if it would interfere with their personal privacy or safety. Services provided at an emergency room after a sexual assault or rape will be paid for by the state.
What can I expect at the hospital?
Below is a list of things included in a hospital's sexual assault exam and treatment. However, Bromson said survivors should be given agency to refuse anything they're uncomfortable with during their visit.
“The exam will get more invasive as time goes on, but a survivor gets to choose every part they want to participate in,” said Bromson.
- An examination to make sure the survivor is physically okay.
- A mouth swab to collect identifying DNA
- A “Head-to-Toe” examination that can include, depending on the specific experience and the person’s permission: internal examinations of the mouth, vagina, and/or anus; taking samples of blood, urine, swabs of body surface areas, and sometimes hair samples; pictures of the survivor’s body to document injuries and the examination; and collecting items of clothing, including undergarments.
- Questions about the victim’s health history, recent consensual sexual activity, as well as questions about the assault or rape. These are meant to help connect any DNA collected to the perpetrator, and to identify where DNA should be collected as well as parts of the body that should be checked for injury, according to the New York State Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
- An option to take medication to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections and diseases, including HIV.
- An option to fill out paperwork for crime victims compensation. In New York, any survivor of a violent crime who is unable to pay for things like medical bills, counseling or lost wages is eligible to apply for compensation from the state.
- Survivors will be given a New York Sexual Assault Victim Bill of Rights, explaining their rights under the law.
- A person at the emergency room will be given the option of using an alias if they feel unsafe, Bromson said.
Do I have to report the assault right away?
Elizabeth Jeglic, an expert on sexual violence prevention and a psychology professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said the most important thing is getting to the hospital quickly and preserving evidence, so the person will have it if they ever decide to report. She warned that the likelihood of evidence being present decreases the longer one waits to do the examination — even if it's just 24 hours. This can make prosecuting the crime that much more difficult.
“You can take your time, but the evidence is now collected and there, so if at a later point you decide that you want to contact the authorities and press charges, you can,” she said.
Bromson said that once a crime is reported to police, what comes next can be intense. He recommended taking any time one needs beforehand.
There is no statute of limitations on first-degree rape, nor is there one for many first-degree sex crimes that took place after February 2019. For other sexual assaults, the statute of limitations ranges between three and 20 years.
What happens if I report to the police?
When a sexual assault is reported from the hospital, it goes through a direct line to the Special Victims Division of the NYPD. Once the call is made, a detective will usually come to the emergency room and take an initial statement, Bromson said.
The survivor has the right to have a licensed advocate with them throughout this process. Police will ask the survivor in more detail what happened, where they were, who they were with, and anything they may remember about the space to help them begin building a case and gathering evidence.
Once the statement is taken, police will usually begin the investigation and start searching for the attacker. If the attacker is someone the victim knows, police may issue a warrant for their arrest. They'll then follow up in a day or two for any further questions they may have about the case.
Bromson said having an advocate can help in the days that follow as well.
“We’ll call the police for an update so the survivor doesn’t have to and, if it gets referred to the district attorney's office, our legal advocate division will work on behalf of the survivor with their office,” Bromson said.
Alissa Heydari, deputy director for the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former assistant Manhattan district attorney, said that despite the current Department of Justice investigation of the NYPD, she has found that most police will treat victims with respect.
“In any department you're going to have a handful of police officers who do not treat victims well,” said Heydari. “But, in my experience, the vast majority of police officers and detectives are great public servants.”
What can I expect from an investigation?
Heydari said after the initial police interview, the case usually gets referred to a prosecutor. The prosecutor will usually want to interview the survivor as well. They will ask the survivor to sign an authorization form, allowing the prosecutor to get the victim's medical records from the hospital if they went there first to get treatment and examinations.
Heydari warns that the legal process can take a very long time.
In between, the survivor will be asked to sign a corroborating affidavit – an official document confirming that the information they have provided for their case is true and accurate. They may also have to testify before a grand jury. That’s a private proceeding in which a jury hears evidence and decides whether to bring formal charges against the defendant. If the defendant is indicted, the case will move forward toward either a plea deal or a trial.
If there is a trial, Heydari said the survivor will likely have to testify.
I’m worried I’ll be blamed for what happened.
Many people either blame themselves or worry that they will be blamed for playing a part in the attack, whether it’s because they had consensual contact with their attacker at some point, were drinking or using drugs, or for a different reason. But Bromson said sexual assault and rape are never the survivor’s fault, and survivors should never be treated like they are.
“People have a number of typical reactions to experiencing a sexual assault and one is self-blame, but nobody has the right to hurt another person,” he said. He said speaking to counselors can help survivors process those feelings.
Police have a written policy not to prosecute people who report rape for things like immigration status or drug use, Bromson said. If drugs were found in a victim's system, they would be ignored by the police, he added. However, Heydari noted that defense attorneys may bring illegal behavior up at trial to challenge an accuser’s credibility.
Melissa Sontag Broudo, legal director for Decriminalize Sex Work, said there is a legal gray area when it comes to sex workers being prosecuted when they report rape. While there is still a law on the books against prostitution, fewer and fewer people today are being charged.
“But it is still dependent on particular circumstances and the county or borough you are reporting in, not as a matter of law,” said Broudo.
What do I do if I suspect the police are mishandling my case?
Ideally, the person would tell a supervisor in the police department, Jeglic says.
A victim advocate, such as the ones Bromson’s group provides, can also help.
Jeglic said if a person does not have a victim advocate, they can request one at the Crime Victim Assistance Program - NYPD (nyc.gov).
And, since the Department of Justice is currently investigating the NYPD’s SVU, anyone who believes they have been mistreated by their officers can report directly to the DOJ.
What other supports are available?
Victim services centers can offer a number of services. Many offer weekly individual or group therapy for people who have experienced trauma. Many also offer legal advocacy, meaning advocates to accompany a survivor to meetings with police or prosecutors or court appearances. They can also help with orders of protection and immigration issues. The centers often also offer education in different areas, like building healthy relationships and assessing risk factors.
Licensed counselors are allowed by law to be with the survivor through the entire process, from the hospital to court.
Here are some numbers:
- Crime Victims Treatment Center: (212) 523-4728
- Safe Horizon: (212) 227-3000
- RAINN’s Nation Sexual Assault Hotline: 800-656-HOPE (4673) or chat
- New York State Hotline for Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence - (800) 942-6906
Bromson said advocacy and support are necessary. A 2022 study found that nearly 8 in 10 women seeking support after experiencing sexual violence are diagnosed with psychiatric disorders like depression, anxiety and PTSD.
An earlier version of this story misspelled Alissa Heydari's first name.