On Tuesday evening, Greenpoint residents were wrapping up their days, buying groceries or sitting for an early dinner at local restaurants along Manhattan Avenue. They were interrupted by a small procession of mostly women, carrying signs and chanting slogans like “No More Silence, No More Violence” and “No Más Violencia Contra Las Mujeres.” A group of police officers walked behind them. What these residents were witnessing was Greenpoint’s first annual candlelight vigil for victims of domestic violence, organized by the North Brooklyn Coalition Against Family Violence. Executive Director Patricia Ross, says she hopes the vigil will let victims know they are not alone, and that the Coalition and the Police are working together to help them.
Indeed, the 94th Precinct co-sponsored the event, adorning its doors with big purple bows, walking with the marchers and participating in the vigil itself. Ross considers their participation essential. “We started working so closely with the police as they are the first responders,” she says. The Coalition enjoys a good relationship with the precinct and it’s “really incredible” domestic violence unit that Ross says is “doing the work that we need them to be doing to support victims.”
Ross says the 94th precinct is the first to allow her organization to do trainings on how to better address victims of trauma stemming from both domestic abuse and sexual assault, and help police understand their role and the services they can provide. For Ross, the relationship with police is critical. “Even though we can provide emotional support, information about services, therapy, we can’t provide the criminal support that the police can.”
But the 94th precinct hasn’t always been perceived as a perfect partner in the fight against sexual assault. For starters, most incidents in the district have gone unsolved. Nor were things helped by controversial comments made by precinct Captain Peter Rose to DNAInfo in January. “It’s not a trend that we’re too worried about because out of 13 [sex attacks], only two were true stranger rapes,” he said, in reference to a spate of assaults in the neighborhood, and later apologized for the statement. Last year, fears over rising sexual assaults and a perceived lack of sufficient police presence prompted residents to form the Greenpoint Task Force. More police are being assigned to the neighborhood, but the problem persists.
Ross suspects that domestic violence is better handled for two reasons. One, it’s considered much more of a community issue than sexual assault, so that neighbors and other community members are more likely to be involved. Second, it’s handled within the precinct, while sexual assault cases must quickly be transferred to the Special Victims Unit, per NYPD policy, and eventually handled by the District Attorney’s office.
After the marchers made their way down Manhattan Avenue, they gathered in a rough circle on the grass in McCarren Park, with Coalition staff taking the lead. Everyone carried lit candles in commemoration of the three women who are killed by their abusers on any given day in the US. Sergeant Jake Cira gave a brief overview of the NYPD’s resources and urged people to report on their own victimization as well as that of neighbors. Janet Barnes, a survivor of domestic abuse and Coalition board member read a poem titled “I Got Flowers Today”, which described the insidious nature of this problem within a relationship.
As the event wrapped up, participants and police lingered to snap a few photos and keep the conversation going. While the event was conducted in English and Spanish, one participant, Christine Holowacz, lamented the fact that it didn’t include Polish translation, to accommodate that community which still makes up about 30% of Greenpoint’s population. “There’s a lot of alcoholism in the Polish community and abuse comes with it. Every community has its own problems,” she said.
Ultimately, the Coalition views the event as a success. The event numbered about 10 police officers and 15 civilians, which Ross says is low but understandable given that it’s the inaugural year. She noted that there were more police here than in the vigils they have conducted in other neighborhoods, perhaps a testament to the relationships built. Next April, the coalition will host its first event marking Sexual Assault Awareness Month in Greenpoint.