Not long ago, there was, as far as the New York Police Department was concerned, no such thing as rape in New York City. That, anyway, is how Detective Ellen King of the NYPD remembers it.
"It was either a girl trying to get even with her boyfriend, or it was a girl covering her tracks, trying to keep her parents from finding out she was sexually active," King says.
"Failing that, it was, 'Your skirt's too short and your blouse is too tight and what were you doing out at 3 o'clock in the morning anyway?' That was the prevailing attitude of the citizens--and the investigators."
It's been a long time since King has heard a woman say that her medical examination was worse than the rape that preceded it; a long time since a rape victim told her the responding officer made her feel it was her fault; a long time since she heard about a hospital employee walking into an emergency room and bellowing: "Where's the rape victim?"
Officer Encouraged Changes
Things are changing for victims of sex crimes in New York City, and they're changing in part because of Ellen King.
In the 11 years since she joined the department's sex crimes unit, King has dedicated herself to easing the plight of the abused. She has preached a gospel of sensitivity and empathy to patrolmen, detectives, hospital employees and others.
She has spent countless hours counseling victims of both sexes and all ages, the men, women and children she prefers to call "survivors."
And she has put her own life on the line to help collar those who prey on the weakest of citizens.
King disarms those she counsels as well as those she arrests.
Dolly Parton Look-Alike
From her black high-heeled boots to her frothy platinum curls, she could be en route to a Dolly Parton look-alike contest rather than a squad room. Like the country and western singer she resembles, King also seems larger than life. "The show is important," she says, explaining that her appearance helps hold the attention of her audiences and distract the victims she visits.
Her appearance also serves as a conduit for her message. "I had a woman who was raped tell me, 'I'll never wear makeup again.' I told her, 'It wasn't sex he was after. It was control. Power. Degradation.'
"I said, 'You weren't raped because you were sexually provocative. It wasn't because you teased him.' These attitudes perpetuate myths."
Putting old myths to rest is a big part of the job for King, the only person in the detective unit assigned to the training of officers who deal with sex crime victims.
King's training began before she ever joined the police department.
Years as Schoolteacher
In the five years she spent as a schoolteacher, she learned to overcome her own shyness, as well as to listen to--and decipher--the language of children.
Her fascination with police work had begun during her own childhood. She had two uncles who wore the uniform of the NYPD. Her grandfather and a third uncle were firefighters. But it was a character on a television show--a plainclothes detective--who captured her imagination.
The show was called "Police Woman Decoy," a weekly series that starred Beverly Garland. It was Beverly Garland that Ellen King wanted to be.
"The idea of the decoy, the plainclothes, was what I found exciting, not the uniform," says King. "I was Nancy Drew, Beverly Garland and the Hardy Boys all rolled into one."
After high school, she entered Fordham University, where she earned a degree in elementary education. Teaching was satisfying, but King couldn't shake her childhood fantasies. In 1966, she became one of 25 women to enter the police academy, where she learned how to be street-wise.
"Training for women then was a lot different from what it is today," she recalls. "Classes were much smaller, and all our training was separate from the men's.
"We learned some judo, some karate, some holds. They taught us to use what we have--our fingers, our nails, our elbows."
Choices available to women in the NYPD were limited. "It was assumed we'd go into juvenile work or guard women prisoners. Women did some stakeouts in theaters looking for indecent exposures, as well as some abortion investigations," King says.
Her first taste of undercover work came after just a couple of weeks on the force. Narcotics officers needed a woman who looked young enough to pass as a high school student. King was chosen.
Dressed the Part
She remembers dressing the part, complete with miniskirt and braids. Her youthful appearance paid off, with several drug arrests within a three-day period.
Another assignment required her to serve as a decoy in the Bronx, where several Spanish women had been raped in the elevators of a housing project. Wearing a dark wig and a hidden recording device, King made herself an easy target, parading in and out of the project's elevators.
"We were hoping the man would come forward, and he did. He got into the elevator with me and tried to get me up on the roof."
It was then that King realized that the lead lining in the walls of the building blocked the sound from the wire she wore. Luckily, additional officers were already staked out on the roof. Another successful collar.
"Fear exists," King says, "but you learn to put it to one side. One of the best defenses is to show confidence. It throws people off. It's always the people who are weakest who are targeted."
Worked With Youths
Between undercover assignments, King spent her early years on the force assigned to the Youth Aid Division, investigating child abuse reports and working with runaways.
"There was a lot of sadness," she recalls. "I went into homes infested with vermin and roaches. I saw babies lying in cribs with bugs crawling on their faces."
In addition to abuse and neglect, King became increasingly aware of another type of crime: the sexual abuse of children.
"My instincts tell me that sex crimes against kids have always been with us. Over the last few years, we have seen much greater disclosure. People are much more willing to come forward, and they're realizing that incest and child sexual abuse are not social misbehavior but criminal behavior."
But in the beginning, she says, "I thought, 'This rarely happens.' It took me years to realize what a huge problem it is, and how it runs the socioeconomic gamut."
Advocates Sex Education
She advocates early sex education for children, but warns that "it must be part of the family dynamics. People must teach their children that just as there are good and bad people, there is 'good' touch and 'bad' touch."
Parents, teachers, social workers and others who care for children also must learn to listen to what their young charges are trying to tell them, King says. Her 23 years of working with children as a teacher and a detective have convinced King that children don't make up stories about sexual abuse.
"Children don't lie," she insists. "When adults make reports, after investigations a certain percentage will be judged unfounded. But based on all my years of dealing with young kids, I can tell you that they cannot in their experience or knowledge concoct graphic, detailed descriptions of this type of behavior. It's out of their frame of reference."
Specially trained detectives within the NYPD's sex crimes unit are automatically assigned to work with all victims of first-degree sex crimes. They also deal with all victims under the age of 10.
Unit Operates Hot Line
In addition, the unit operates a 24-hour rape hot line, which is answered only by female detectives.
When she's not answering the phone herself, King is usually traveling the city's five boroughs, speaking to detectives and patrolmen.
She makes it a point to linger after her talk in case anyone wants to speak to her privately. After hearing King speak, three female officers have confided to her that they themselves had been raped.
While the NYPD has made considerable progress in dealing with victims of sex crimes, King remains ever mindful of the statistics.
"The FBI says only one out of 10 victims will come forward to law enforcement," she says. "If that's going to change, the public has to perceive us as caring people, as the most experienced of society's social workers."