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Sex assaults hit 20-year high in Near North police district as cases return to pre-pandemic levels across city

Nineteen of the city’s 22 police districts saw an increase in sexual assault reports this year compared to 2020, with reports nearly doubling in an area including River North and parts of downtown.

Chicago police keep watch outside bars, including El Hefe, on the Near North Side on a weekend night earlier this fall. El Hefe was sued after an assault took place outside the club in 2019. The bar has denied the charges.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

After a night out in River North earlier this year, a Chicago woman headed to what she thought was an afterparty in a nearby hotel room.

When she realized it was just her and a friend and two male acquaintances, the woman knew something was off and wanted to go home.

She doesn’t remember what happened next.

But when she regained consciousness in an unfamiliar suburban home, her body aching, the woman and her friend rushed out and took a ride-share back to the city.

The woman knew she had been sexually assaulted.

She underwent a rape kit exam at an area hospital, but she was hesitant to file a police report. She was already dealing with trauma related to an abusive relationship, and she worried that moving forward with criminal charges might cause her more distress.

“I have really bad anxiety and PTSD because of it so I can’t even imagine having to go against anybody else,” the woman, who asked not to be named, told the Sun-Times. “ ... I feel like my mental health would deteriorate.”

She didn’t end up reporting the incident.

But many others reported assaults last year. In fact, the number of similar crimes reported in the city this year skyrocketed when compared to 2020, a Sun-Times analysis of Chicago police statistics show.

The Near North district, which includes River North and parts of downtown, saw the highest number of reported assaults of any district in the city.

In 2020, there were 77 sexual assaults reported in the Near North district, according to the CPD’s CompStat figures. Through Sunday, there were 151 sexual assaults reported this year — a more than 95% increase over last year and the most in two decades in the district.

While police and advocates don’t directly blame the large number of bars and nightclubs in the area for the spike in reports, they note alcohol or drugs often play a role in the incidents.

In addition, the exact location of some of the assaults is unclear since more than a third of the survivors talked to police at Northwestern Medicine without giving a specific location of where the rapes occurred. In those cases, officers only listed the hospital’s address in Streeterville, in the Near North district, in their reports.

Assaults increased in nearly every district

Nineteen of the city’s 22 police districts saw an increase in sexual assault reports this year compared to 2020.

The Jefferson Park district saw the largest percentage increase, with a 121% jump in reports through Sunday, from 33 sexual assaults in 2020 to 73 this year. Likewise, the Shakespeare district, which includes parts of Logan Square, Wicker Park and Bucktown, saw a 103% increase, from 36 to 73.

Still, those numbers are relatively low compared to other parts of the city. The Chicago Lawn district recorded 133 incidents in 2021, up from 126 last year; and the South Chicago district saw 117 reports, up from 93 in 2020.

Throughout the city, as of Monday, there were 2,056 reported sexual assaults this year — a 28% increase compared to the same time frame in 2020 when there were 1,612 reported incidents, CPD data shows.

While it is hard to gauge how much lifting COVID-19 restrictions, particularly at bars and nightclubs and in social gatherings, contributed to the increase of reported sexual assaults this year, the current citywide numbers appeared to have returned to levels reported before the pandemic. There were more than 2,000 sexual assaults reported in the city through late December in both 2019 and 2018.

LaToya Rogers, a YWCA medical advocate who provides support to sexual assault survivors at South Side hospitals, said the #MeToo movement and an improvement in how medical professionals and Chicago police officers treat survivors has motivated many to go to authorities.

A rape kit that contains legal and medical forms and evidence collection tools that are used for training purposes is seen at Howard Brown Health in the Buena Park neighborhood, Thursday afternoon, Dec. 9, 2021. Howard Brown Health has been temporarily administering rape kits, which was permitted by a change in the Sexual Assault Survivors Emergency Treatment Act in June 2020.
A rape kit that contains legal and medical forms and evidence collection tools that are used for training purposes is seen at Howard Brown Health in the Buena Park neighborhood, Thursday afternoon, Dec. 9, 2021. Howard Brown Health has been temporarily administering rape kits, which was permitted by a change in the Sexual Assault Survivors Emergency Treatment Act in June 2020.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

“A lot of the officers ... are being trained in sexual assault, so they are coming in believing the victim. They’re not coming in with this judgmental attitude or judgmental questioning. It’s like they are coming in [with] full support,” Rogers said.

When she first started at the YWCA in 2017, “it wasn’t that way,” she said. “They were kind of just insensitive, not really empathetic to the survivors.”

Chicago police officers recently underwent in-service trainings that focused on trauma-informed response to sexual assaults, police officials said in a statement.

“The sensitive nature and lasting impact of sex crimes strongly influences the Chicago Police Department’s (CPD) investigative approach to these crimes,” the statement said. “CPD focuses on evidence-based, trauma-informed, and victim-centered practices which allow investigators to accommodate survivors’ needs and giving ample time for them to provide information to detectives.”

An increase in reported sexual assaults could also mean survivors are more aware of support services and are using them more, said Maggie Arthur, the director of education and training at Chicago-based Resilience, which has provided services to more than 2,500 survivors since the start of 2020.

“We are seeing a lot more calls to hotlines, a lot more asks for trauma therapy, and so that could also be influenced by folks just having more exposure to those resources,” Arthur said. “Or that they’re actually experiencing harm at higher rates.”

Mujeres Latinas en Acción on the Southwest Side also saw more demand for counseling and therapy services from survivors in Chicago and the suburbs, said Maritza Reyes, director of agency’s sexual assault program.

At Howard Brown Health, staff administered nine rape kits from March through early December thanks to an update to the state’s Sexual Assault Survivors Emergency Treatment Act that temporarily allowed federally-qualified health centers to collect the kits.

Typically, few Howard Brown patients would have filed a police report or undergone an exam, said Dr. Paige Baker-Braxton, a consultant to the organization that serves lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer communities.

“The majority of our patients are queer and trans, and what we know to be true is that historically those populations have had really negative encounters with police or the criminal justice system,” Baker-Braxton said. “So our patients tend to look for alternative methods of accountability or healing.”

A rape kit that contains legal and medical forms and evidence collection tools that are used for training purposes is seen at Howard Brown Health in the Buena Park neighborhood, Thursday afternoon, Dec. 9, 2021. Howard Brown Health has been temporarily administering rape kits, which was permitted by a change in the Sexual Assault Survivors Emergency Treatment Act in June 2020.
Howard Brown Health has been temporarily administering rape kits, which was permitted by a change in state law.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

While there has been an increase in demand for services, advocates for survivors caution that crime statistics only tell part of the story of sexual violence.

Some reported attacks took place years ago but are recorded in the year the survivor chooses to come forward.

Often, survivors, including minors, know their attackers, so many survivors who were already dealing with domestic violence had their chances of being raped increase when they were spending more time at home when COVID-19 numbers jumped, Reyes said.

Many more rape survivors may be hesitant to go to authorities because they don’t think their assailants will be held accountable.

Report: Few arrests made in assaults

A 2020 report by the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation revealed that Chicago police did not make an arrest in roughly 80-90% of sex-related crimes between 2010 and 2019.

As of Dec. 22, there were 423 felony sexual assault charges tied to Chicago-related incidents approved by the Cook County state’s attorney’s office. Charges in 160 cases were rejected.

In a statement, the state’s attorney’s office said compared to the previous three years, the felony approval rate increased to 86% in 2021, up from 85% in 2020, and 78% in 2018 and 2019.

While the number of approved felony charges returned to pre-pandemic levels, however, the number of convictions in Chicago-based sexual assault cases remains near a 10-year low, data shows.

Of the approved sexual assault charges this year, prosecutors secured 174 convictions, the state’s attorney’s office said. There were 110 convictions last year.

The decline of convictions in more recent years could be partly attributed to the closure of the courthouses during the height of the pandemic, officials said.

Howard Brown Health, located at 4025 N. Sheridan Rd. in the Buena Park neighborhood, is seen in this photo, Thursday afternoon, Dec. 9, 2021. Howard Brown Health has been temporarily administering rape kits, which was permitted by a change in the Sexual Assault Survivors Emergency Treatment Act in June 2020.
Howard Brown Health, located at 4025 N. Sheridan Road in the Buena Park neighborhood, is seen in this photo, Thursday afternoon, Dec. 9, 2021. Howard Brown Health has been temporarily administering rape kits, which was permitted by a change in the Sexual Assault Survivors Emergency Treatment Act in June 2020.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

The woman who spoke to the Sun-Times about her sexual assault said she still doesn’t know the name of her attacker who was with her group earlier that night at the Joy District nightclub. But she has warned others about her friend’s male acquaintance who was with them that night.

The woman initially blamed herself, but when she returned to the same River North club weeks later, someone inappropriately touched her friend, she said.

At least one sexual assault report in July also started out with a night out at Joy District, police records show. Representatives from Joy District did not respond to requests for comment.

Another River North establishment has been the subject of lawsuits involving sexual assault allegations.

Two women filed lawsuits in 2019 against El Hefe saying they were sexually assaulted after someone drugged their drinks. The lawsuits alleged the bar and the staff’s negligence contributed to the attacks. The bar has denied the charges, and no arrests have been made in the cases.

One lawsuit is pending. The other lawsuit was dismissed last year , according to Cook County court records.

A nurse at Howard Brown Health shows forms that are part of a rape kit that is used for training purposes at Howard Brown Health in the Buena Park neighborhood, Thursday afternoon, Dec. 9, 2021. Howard Brown Health has been temporarily administering rape kits, which was permitted by a change in the Sexual Assault Survivors Emergency Treatment Act in June 2020.
A nurse at Howard Brown Health shows forms that are part of a rape kit used for training purposes at Howard Brown Health in the Buena Park neighborhood.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Arthur, who coordinates Resilience’s “Our Music My Body,” program, has worked with officials at music festivals and local venues in an attempt to shift the culture and create sustainable policies that will help prevent sexual assaults.

The sexual assault survivor who spoke to the Sun-Times agreed the environment at venues often plays in a role in keeping those in attendance from being harmed.

“I feel like it depends on the promoters and the parties that they throw or what kind of night it is,” the woman said. “... I feel like the promoter that [the venue] gets definitely [does] set the tone for the nights that they have.”

Andy Boyle contributed to the data analysis for this report.

Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.