MassLive by By Patrick Johnson
October 5, 2019

Across Massachusetts last year, there were fewer homicides, fewer armed robberies, fewer burglaries and fewer auto thefts.

In fact, according to newly released FBI data, every category of violent and property crime saw a decline in 2018 except one: rape.

The trend emerged this week in the release of the latest edition of the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, the annual snapshot of incidents reported to police based on data compiled and submitted by thousands of local law enforcement agencies.

Nationally, and across Massachusetts, the report concludes that crime is measurably down: decreasing 5.9%, with violent crime down 3.6% and property crime down 6.3%. In Massachusetts, the numbers are even better, with crime down 11% overall. The state saw a 5% drop in violent crimes and a nearly 12% drop in property crimes.

But nationwide, the number of rapes reported increased by 2.7%. In Massachusetts, the data shows a 10.5% increase.

Among some of the state’s largest cities, the increases were even larger:

Lowell: 85%, from 13 to 24
Lynn: 82%, from 28 to 51
Fall River: 43%, from 53 to 76
Springfield: 42%, from 73 to 104.
Among other cities in the region, Hartford and Worcester saw increases in reported rapes of 18% and 17%, respectively. Boston (-4%) and New Haven (-13%) showed declines.

In Springfield, the 104 rapes reported was an increase of 31 from 2017, and the highest amount since 2010, when there were 129 reported.

Officials with social service agencies that work with victims of sexual assault say the findings suggest rapes are not necessarily increasing, but that more victims are coming forward to report them to police.

Toni Troop, director of communications and development for Jane Doe Inc., a Boston-based advocacy organization focusing on ending sexual and domestic violence, and Elizabeth G. Dineen, executive director of the YWCA of Western Massachusetts, each said this week they believe the increase is directly tied to the rise of the #MeToo movement.

“#MeToo has led to an empowerment of victims to come forward,” Dineen said. “Absolutely that is very important.”

As Troop sees it, the #MeToo movement has brought sexual assault and abuse into the conversation. “It sent a message that victims don’t need to stay silent,” Troop said.

While activist Tarana Burke began using the phrase “Me Too” as early as 2006, the #MeToo hashtag began to see widespread use in the fall of 2017 when thousands of women from all walks of life told their stories of abuse following allegations against movie producer Harvey Weinstein. More than 80 women would eventually come forward; Weinstein is facing criminal charges of rape in New York, and is named in several civil suits.

A year later, the hashtag went through a resurgence during the Supreme Court nomination hearings of Brett Kavanaugh. In televised congressional hearings, Stanford University professor Christine Blasey Ford testified that Kavanaugh had pinned her to a bed, groped her and tried to pull off her clothes when they were both in high school. Kavanaugh denies the allegations.

The period reflected in the 2018 FBI Uniform Crime Report overlaps with much of the time between the Weinstein allegations and the Kavanaugh hearings.

“There’s a good chance the increase is due to that,” Troop said.

Springfield police spokesman Ryan Walsh said he also believes the 42% jump for Springfield is the result of more victims coming forward to notify police.

“That’s good. We want people to report,” he said.

Most reported rapes in the city involve domestic violence, with victims suffering abuse by a partner or family member.

“There are not a lot of stranger rapes in Springfield,” Walsh said.

Dineen said the increase may also be the result of the visibility in the community of the various agencies that work with victims of sexual assault. In addition to the YWCA, she cited Safe Passage in Northampton and Womanshelter/Compañeras in Holyoke.

The agencies also work closely with the local police departments, hospitals and the district attorney’s office to help victims of sexual crimes from the moment they come forward, she said. Combined, there is a cohesive effort to show victims “they don’t have to be alone,” she said.

“I think it’s working,” she said.

Rapes and sexual assaults are historically among the least reported crimes. Data from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that in 2016, only 23% of rapes and sexual assaults were reported to the police, compared to nearly 44% for other violent crimes.

Troop said the increase may be the result of another factor beyond #MeToo awareness, and the two factors “don’t negate each other.”

While victims of sexual assault feel more comfortable coming forward to report the crime in the current climate, she said, it is also possible more victims are coming forward because there are more sexual assaults being committed.

“To us, it’s a ‘both/and,’” Troop said.

The FBI data is based on crimes that are reported to the police. Crimes that are not reported are not counted.

“There are people who experience sexual violence and they never tell anyone., or they may tell a friend, or they may go to a counselor,” Troop said. “Those numbers are not going to be in the UCR.”

She mentioned the Centers for Disease Control’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, which is an ongoing study that collects information through self-reporting via telephone surveys.

Unlike the FBI’s crime report, which focuses on rapes and attempted rapes reported to law enforcement, the CDC survey looks at the broader category of sexual violence, including sexual coercion, stalking, and unwanted sexual contact like groping.

Because that survey has a broader focus, its numbers are quite different than the FBI’s annual numbers.

The most recent Uniform Crime Report says that nationwide there were 139,380 rapes reported in the U.S. in 2018, an increase of 2.7% from 2017.

In contrast, the CDC’s most recent survey, published in 2017 using data from 2015, estimated that 5.6 million women experienced some form of sexual violence.

Troop said it would be interesting when the CDC survey is updated to see if it shows increases over the last two years that are comparable to what is shown in the FBI report.

Springfield was alone in major cities around the region in that it shows a sizable increase in violent crime — nearly 12%. Boston, Worcester, and Hartford each saw declines in violent crime from 2017 to 2018. New Haven’s violent crime rate was basically unchanged from one year to the next.

All four cities saw declines in property crimes.

In addition to reported rapes, Springfield also saw increases in homicides (from 14 to 19, or 36%), in robberies (25%), and assaults (6%).

Walsh said that when looking at overall crime, or the total of all violent and property crimes, the crime rate in the city fell by 5%.

Property crimes in Springfield declined by 11%, burglaries by 23%, and car thefts by 16%, he said.

Break-ins to businesses and houses are down, he said, because of increased use of surveillance cameras.