Perv Busters Fight Sex Crimes in Subway

By Tiffany Vargas

Sex crimes on the subway are increasing yearly and city officials are struggling with ways to control the repeat offenders. As a result, Perv Busters, a citizen patrol group on the subways, decided to take things into their own hands to help citizens of New York feel safer from creeps. Mary “KC” Gethins, 48, member of the Perv Busters, says she was excited for the opportunity to help people. “If I’m not working, then I’m in my Guardian Angels uniform and I’m out there volunteering and I’ve been doing that for 22 years now and that’s not going to change,” she said. “Until I’m too old to work is when I’m going to be too old to do Guardian Angels stuff.”

According to the MTA, over 5.4 million people take the subway on any given weekday, as of 2019, and the numbers are dropping considerably in 2020 due to the impact of the Coronavirus. With the number of sex crimes on public transportation rising every year, more and more people are at risk of becoming a victim of a crime. The number of reported sex crimes has been on the rise since 2014 where there were 620 incidents compared to 941 reported incidents in 2016, according to the “Perverted Justice” report released by New York State Senator Diane J. Savino.

The Guardian Angels was initially created as a community watch group by Curtis Silwa during the 1970s when New York City subways were overrun by crime. The Perv Busters subdivision was created in 2016 when Silwa pitched the idea of a group that helped tackle the issues of sexual assaults and rapes on the trains. Having the group mostly led and made up of women was very important to Gethins because it represented women empowerment. “We would like to use this as an example of what you can do,” Gethins said. “It’s not so scary to be empowered as a woman and chasing people and make sure they get arrested, make sure they get charged properly, make sure they stay in jail because it’s not okay to do anything like that to a woman and that goes from flashing your privates to full on rape.”

The initial training to become a member of Perv Busters can take upwards of six months before individuals are considered a “safety patrol” member. Regular members patrol most of the subway lines all throughout the boroughs, focusing on a new one each day depending on where their help is needed. The average patrol can last up to four hours or more depending on the members’ schedules.

Jen “Blondie” Ray, 49, has been volunteering as a Perv Buster for the past three years in addition to working as a freelance artist. “I want to do something to help women that have been the victims of crimes, or potentially the victims of crimes,” she said. “And I wanted to do something in real life, not just watch documentaries about women getting murdered.”

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When involved in a real-life situation with the Perv Busters, the training they go through helps with maintaining safety and some actions come more naturally than others. Facing a perpetrator, Ray says she finds herself automatically trying to manage the situation so it doesn’t become aggressive or out of hand. “For me, it’s always, like, try to calm that person down, try to deescalate,” she said. “One of our members might be calling the police while another member is talking to the person, while another member is kind of standing by to help so that nobody gets hurt. Usually, we’re in a group and everybody has a little role to play so that the situation doesn’t get out of control.”

More than 40 percent of reported sex crimes on the subways go unsolved, according to the “Perverted Justice” report. Most of the offenders that are not arrested become repeat offenders. There has been an effort to help victims of sex crimes report their encounters. The MTA created a web page in 2014 where victims can easily report the crime to the proper authorities, including anonymously. According to transit crime statistics provided by the NYPD, there have been 254 crime complaints in September 2020, which included sex crimes. This number is down from 273 reported in August.

Not even police officers are protected from perverts on the subway. The NYPD Special Victims Division uploaded a few videos to its Twitter account accompanied by the hashtag ‘The Call is Yours’ which tells the story of Police Officer Lennoxann Samerson who was groped while waiting for the train. “I didn’t know what happened,” she said. “Time stood still. Then I realized someone had violated me.”

Luckily, with the help of her fellow police officers, they were able to apprehend the person and he was convicted. The following video encourages those who were victims of crimes to come forward and report it so their report can get a criminal of the streets. “If it doesn’t feel right to you, it probably isn’t,” Christine Bastedenbeck, deputy inspector of the Transit Bureau, said. “Don’t let doubt about what may have happened prevent you from reporting. We care and take all reports seriously.”

There has been talk about banning the criminals from the subways. Governor Cuomo backed a law in March that bans repeated and high-risk criminals who have committed sex crimes on the subway from the transit system for up to three years. “Enough is enough. If we want our public transit system to improve, we need balance between someone’s right to access public transit and the riders’ right to safety, which is why I am proposing a three-year ban from the MTA transit systems as a penalty for individuals who repeatedly engage in this abhorrent behavior,” he said.

The New York City Bar has reviewed a report submitted by the Criminal Justice Operations Committee and the Sex Offender Registration Act Working Group detailing why the new law “violates basic due process principals” and will not be effective in lowering the sexual assaults on the transit system.

Like many others, Gethins believes that it’s going to be hard to enforce that law according to the current plan. “It’s hard to enforce that if we don’t have a fully staffed system of NYPD officers,” she said. “We don’t have the manpower from them to be in every station and to be on top of that.”

Ray agrees with Gethins about the plan not working but she also thinks that, in the meantime, she hopes that Perv Busters can inspire New Yorkers to look out for each other as a community. With her own experiences of living in Williamsburg during a time when there was a serial rapist, she realizes that not only should you be worried for yourself but for others, as well. “I do think that you have to have some responsibility about knowing where you live and what’s happening in your neighborhood and occasionally talk to your neighbors, and have a little bit more solidarity in New York City,” she said.

The relationship with the police and the Guardian Angels has been rocky since its beginnings in the 70s. Arnold “13” Salinas, 58, a founding father of the group, said that NYPD was rightfully skeptical of the group of amateurs. “The police unions were always against us,” he said. “They said we were taking jobs away from police officers, which is malarkey. We were kids. We did what we did because we had a moral and ethical obligation and it made us feel good.”

It took decades to be seen as more than a vigilante group by the NYPD and previous Mayor of NYC Rudy Giuliani, but the actions of the police tainted Salinas’ view of them. “It was disheartening to see how they treated us at first, for me, personally. As one of the founding fathers of this organization I thought for sure that they would see that we’re trying to help them, to be eyes and ears. But they weren’t having it. So, I did not become a police officer, because of this.”

Even with the Perv Buster’s work today, they sometimes struggle with communication with the police. Gethins says that sometimes the cops would restrict information about cases or even claim total credit for more serious ones they helped with. Despite that, it doesn’t deter them and they continue to work just as hard to capture pervs on the subways and streets. “We don’t need to be in the newspaper. We don’t need to be given any type of hero status because that’s not what we’re out there for,” she said. “We’re just out there to keep the peace and to make sure that crime stays off the street.”

The group’s leader Silwa, who’s running for New York City mayor in 2021, is very hypercritical of Governor Cuomo’s actions and the way the city is run. Subway crimes are down about 57 percent in November 2020 in comparison to last year, however, this also goes in hand with the fact that subway ridership is down more than 70 percent in comparison to December 2019, most likely due to COVID-19 restrictions. He has taken to Twitter several times to voice his disagreement with Cuomo’s actions, especially during the pandemic. “NYC is in the midst of a crime crisis where NYPD have been defunded & now King Cuomo wants to take 4,000 cops away from protecting the public & redirect them to enforce social distancing & mask-wearing at restaurants. CUOMO IS INSANE,” he tweeted in September.

Ultimately, the decisions regarding what to do with perverts is up to the state of New York. Gethins said that Perv Busters will continue to “keep pushing the envelope” with its work but there’s only so much they can do. “We can help arrest as many perverts as we can but unless the state of New York decides to reclassify how sexual crimes are for them, we’re not going to get anything done and it’s going to be a revolving door,” she said.

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