News | Morningside Heights

Suspect arrested in Morningside Park sexual assault

A 19-year old man has been arrested in connection to a sexual assault that happened in Morningside Park on Sunday evening.

A spokesperson for the New York Police Department confirmed that Jason Harris had been arrested and taken to Manhattan Criminal Court on charges of first-degree sexual assault.

The assault took place on a running path in one of the western hills of the park. The victim was walking, engaged in a short conversation with the suspect, and was then sexually assaulted, according to a Columbia University Public Safety alert.

Public Safety began circulating pictures and a surveillance camera video of a suspect on Tuesday morning, and by the afternoon the NYPD said they had identified and detained a suspect.

Brad Taylor, secretary of Friends of Morningside Park, said that the attack was particularly disturbing because it took place during daylight hours.

After two shootings in and around the park rattled West Harlem residents this summer, politicians met with the community in August to discuss how to improve safety in the park.

Although there was talk of installing security cameras, finding funding to move forward with the project has proven difficult.

“Looking at the proposal, the funding is the only thing we have to deal with,” State Senator Bill Perkins, whose district includes Morningside Park, said on Tuesday.

Friends of Morningside Park held a benefit dinner on Tuesday evening that would partially fund the cameras, according to Brad Taylor, secretary of Friends of Morningside Park. Perkins said his office has also been working to plan other kinds of fundraisers.

Taylor said on Monday that local institutions, like Columbia and the Morningside Area Alliance, aren’t funding as many Parks Enforcement Patrol officers as they should.

Perkins said he questioned whether more police officers would be the right solution.

“I’m not quite sure what level [of patrol] it would take—we don’t want the place swarming with cops,” Perkins said on Tuesday. “Clearly, officers in the park, walking the park, showing some presence, especially in the upper areas, will have a deterring effect.”

Dottie Janotka, who has overseen the park’s dog run for 10 years, said that better lighting will diminish the risk of assaults.

“This year, all over the park, everything is in full bloom—meaning the trees are blocking the light and everything is very dark,” Janotka said. The heavy tree cover makes it difficult to see around the many bends in the park’s hilly paths, she said.

She said she’s asked the city’s Parks Department for “just one 300-watt bulb. They’re $300 apiece. … They said ‘yes,’ but that was four years ago and we still didn’t get it,” she said.

Perkins suggested that bringing more neighborhood events to the park is more important than ramped-up police presence.

“We need to keep programming the park so that there’s more community activity. That’s constructive and helpful,” Perkins said.

“I see young ladies walking in the park late, all the time, wearing those,” Janotka said, gesturing to the headphones of a young woman entering the park alone after nightfall on Tuesday. “They’re not observing their surroundings.”

Janotka said she always walks with Captain, her 10-year-old mutt, a labrador mix. She said that when a stranger passes the dog run, Captain will run up to the fence and check them out. “They may not even be close. But he knows they’re up to something.”

Lauren Herold, CC ’12 and a member of Take Back the Night, an annual march that protests sexual violence, said that she was alarmed reading comments on a post about the assault, in which commenters advised against going into Morningside Park alone.

“I don’t think there is always going to be a rapist in the park,” she said. “I think that’s really a racialized stereotype and a cliche about what sexual assault is.”

She urged the community to refrain from that kind of subconscious “blame the victim” mentality.

“We should advise people not to go in the parks and rape, instead of not to go in the parks and be afraid of being assaulted,” she said.

finn.vigeland@columbiaspectator.com

An earlier version of this article inaccurately reported that the Friends of Morningside Park and State Senator Bill Perkins' office had been working together to plan fundraisers. Spectator regrets the error.

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