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NYC Fights Gropers, Flashers

For many women in the city, lewd behavior on the subway or street is part of daily life. Police and citizens are making an effort to change that.

October 09, 2006|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — For Gina Ferraraccio, like many women in this city, the experience is all too common.

She's on a subway car during rush hour, crammed up against fellow passengers, when she feels a man getting closer than necessary -- sometimes surreptitiously groping her from behind.

Ferraraccio, a 25-year-old lingerie saleswoman, said she often turns and yells at the perpetrator to stop.

"But mostly, I just try not to stand next to creepy-looking guys," she said with a sigh as she waited on a platform for her downtown train on a recent evening. "I don't know if there's anything else that can be done."

Lewd public behavior -- especially in the cramped confines of a subway car -- has long been regarded as a quotidian hassle of New York living. But lately there are signs that the city is no longer taking it in stride, with the police and citizens turning their attention to exposing the culprits.

In the last few months, the New York Police Department has orchestrated undercover stings -- including one called "Operation Exposure" -- to catch gropers and flashers in the act.

This year, police have made 245 arrests for forcible touching, lewd behavior or sexual abuse on the subways -- an increase of 131% over last year.

Assistant Chief James Hall, commanding officer of the NYPD's transit bureau, launched the enforcement effort this spring after noticing an increase in harassment complaints from female riders.

"When you talk to women, you'd be amazed how many of them have had this happen to them," Hall said. "This is almost part of their daily commute.

"To me, it's a really big quality-of-life issue," he added. "Certainly, you have to have priorities when you're in law enforcement. Graffiti is bad, vandalism is bad. But these are women who are just trying to get to work, and they shouldn't be subjected to this."

With subway crime down overall this year -- a 19% drop over last year -- the transit bureau has been able to devote more resources to targeting lewd behavior, and now regularly deploys plainclothes officers onto the trains to look for gropers and flashers. In some cases, men have been caught after fondling female officers posing as businesswomen.

"They are put out there in what we would consider normal attire," Hall said.

Women have been fighting back on their own as well, posting cellphone-snapped photos of offenders on a website devoted to outing the perpetrators.

Holla Back NYC (www.hollabacknyc.blogspot.com) was started last fall by a group of twentysomething friends, many of them New York University graduates, who were fed up with catcalls, leers and groping.

"There are a lot of people who just accept that if you're a woman in New York City, this is something you have to deal with," said co-founder Emily May, 25, a director of development at a nonprofit. "But there are a growing number of women saying: 'This isn't fair. My husband lives in a completely different city than I do.' "

The website features postings from women recounting incidents of street harassment: crude comments, public masturbation and even attempted assault. The entries are often accompanied by blurry photos of men, some e-mailed directly from the women's cellphones. The site's motto: "If You Can't Slap 'Em, Snap 'Em!"

The aim of Holla Back NYC is to help women feel empowered and to change cultural attitudes about lewd public behavior, said co-founder Sam Carter, 24, one of three men involved in the project.

"We're not interested in engaging harassers directly," said Carter, who studies public policy at NYU. "We'd like to create an environment in which street harassment is stigmatized."

The website cautions women to avoid confronting men if they're alone in an unpopulated area and suggests taking photos from a distance, without alerting the harasser.

Still, some contributors said that they had been upfront about their actions and described a man's look of shock after snapping his photo and telling him it would be posted on the Internet.

"It changes everything to be able to turn the tables once in a while, even just a little," wrote one woman.

The idea was sparked by the experience of Thao Nguyen, a 23-year-old marketing director from Queens who took a photo with her cellphone of a man exposing himself to her on the subway in summer 2005 and posted it online. The New York Daily News ran the photo on its cover and the man -- a restaurateur -- was arrested.

May said the story generated intense discussion among her friends about their sense of powerlessness when they were harassed. Many said they felt ashamed by the experience, as if they had somehow triggered it.

"You kind of blame yourself: Maybe I shouldn't be here, or be wearing this," she said.

Holla Back NYC gets about 100,000 hits a month and has inspired more than a dozen similar projects around the country.

Police said cellphone cameras had proved to be a powerful arsenal in combating lewd public behavior, especially if the picture caught someone in the act.

But Hall urged women to use caution when taking photos, so as to avoid a violent response, and to report all harassment, whether they have photographic proof or not.

Though Holla Back NYC does not work directly with the police -- Hall wasn't aware of its existence -- the website provides legal resources about street harassment and encourages victims to report all crimes.

For many women, just knowing they now have a weapon at their disposal to fight harassment makes them feel empowered.

Erin D'Souza, a 35-year-old architect, said she wished she had had a cellphone camera several years ago when a man exposed himself to her on a nearly empty subway train.

"It was disgusting," she said, adding that she got off the train at the next station. "There wasn't much else I could do."

matea.gold@latimes.com

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