The vast majority of women, and some men, experience street harassment — according to Hollaback, 80 to 99% of women experience street harassment at some point in their lives. Street harassment takes the form of vulgar gestures, sexually explicit comments, whistling, following, kissing noises, groping, masturbation….the list goes on. I’ve had most of these happen to me — from the man who followed me out of the subway while masturbating, to the whistling and kissing noises that sometimes follow me when I’m out at night.
Last weekend, I experienced a new, unexpected form of street harassment. After a Friday night out, I was walking home from the neighborhood bar with my roommate when a car full of men pulled up next to us.
It was the NYPD.
They trailed us down the street, shouting at us. Our crime: being 22-year-old women out at night.
First, they shouted out to ask if we were okay — fair enough, no harm done. But after we answered and kept walking, they continued trailing us, asking what we were carrying (we’d stopped to buy snacks), telling us to give it to them, and then, when we stopped answering, shouting at us to come over to the police car and get in. After our first answers, we stopped responding and kept walking straight ahead, as quickly as we could, not looking at them, not answering.
They trailed us in their car for over a block, always staying a few feet behind us and continuing to shout at us to come to them, even though we’d stopped responding. They only stopped when we hurried around the corner down a side street.
“Did that really just happen?” my roomie asked.
“That was NOT OKAY,” I said.
There have been multiple reports of rape in our area of Brooklyn recently, but these NYPD officers chose to spend their time following young women down the street, shouting at them. Instead of catching rapists, they’re contributing to rape culture.
When I called to report the incident, the NYPD didn’t seem to care. I had to call four numbers — including one disconnected number — before I was able to make a report. And nobody I spoke to took me seriously.
“I don’t understand. It’s not like a crime occurred,” one said.
“Usually they aren’t that brazen,” said another. So this happens a lot — and they know about it?
“And your complaint is?” asked the final police officer, after I’d given my report.
If the police react like this to reports of street harassment, who can fault women for not reporting more serious crimes? According to RAINN, over 54% of sexual assaults are not reported to the police, and some don’t report sexual assault because they feel that the police are biased.
It’s true that these NYPD officers weren’t saying anything particularly explicit — I’ve certainly heard worse — but the fact that they were following us and shouting at us to get into their police car seems to qualify as street harassment to me, especially since they were on duty and in uniform. It was certainly unprofessional and extremely threatening.
I grew up in a tiny Midwestern town where I never needed a house key because we felt safe just keeping the side door unlocked. A few months ago, I moved to Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn. Since then, I’ve seen human shit on my doorstep and a drug bust in the hallway, but I’ve never felt more unsafe than when the NYPD followed me down the street that night.
I couldn’t find any statistics on street harassment by the police, but a quick Google search turns up multiple anecdotes about both street harassment by the police and police ignoring reports of street harassment. There’s even a Hollaback tag called “NYPD Fail.”
When I moved to New York, my parents said they were glad that there was a visible police presence in Bed-Stuy — it meant that I’d be safe. But maybe it was the police they should have worried about.
Street harassment is never okay. Even when — especially when — it comes from the police.
Images from pixiq.com, traceychan.com (Image by Tracey Chan, tag by Stephanie Leitch), stopstreetharassment.com