Round That Big Tree, but Beware ‘bumpers’

It’s almost December, and many New Yorkers are probably dreaming of a white Christmas. One thing that gets them in the mood is the tree at Rockefeller Center. Eachyear,hundreds of thousandsofNew Yorkersand tourists flock to the famed 76-foot-tallNorway spruce, ooh -ing and aah -ing over its 30,000 twinkly lights,gazing down at the apple-cheeked skaters on the rink below and thinking happy holiday thoughts.

Some thoughts are happier than others, though.

Mixed in each year with the Yuletide throng are the Rockefeller Center bumpers. Which is one reason why, with the Dec. 4 tree-lighting in its final planning stages, the New York Police Department will increase its deployment of undercover police officers around the tree. And Rockefeller Center’s own security force will be doubled this year, according to a security guard. Yes, the extra muscle has a lot do with Sept. 11 and fears of terrorism. But even before Al Qaeda was a dirty word, the annual arrival of the Rock Center tree also brought out the bumpers, which meant more cops.

Just who are the Rockefeller Center bumpers? They are men who come up behind unsuspecting women in the crowd and rub themselves against them, often spilling their seed on them. Usually the women-who tend to be bundled up in nice winter coats-have no idea that it has occurred.

“Somebody says, ‘Hey, you’ve got something on the back of your coat,’” said a former NYPD officer who worked as an undercover investigator at Rockefeller Center. But by that time, the bumper is usually long gone. And often the woman gets home before she even realizes she’s been “bumped,” making arrests and prosecutions rare-about one arrest per day, out of what cops estimate to be at least six incidents per day of bumping at Rockefeller Center during the Christmas season.

“Once they’re home and they’ve got a huge spot on the back of their coat, what are they gonna do-call the cops and say, ‘A bird shit on me?’” said a midtown police officer.

And so the cops have to be on the lookout for would-be bumpers. One way the police can identify them is by the holes cut out of the pockets of their coats. “They put their hands in the holes and play with themselves,” said the former investigator. “You don’t see anything.” Other bumpers are naked under their coats, and attach two pant legs to their skin with tape or with homemade suspenders to give the illusion they’re wearing clothes.

Where do the bumpers do their work?

“There are two spots that are prime areas, where class trips and families always stand,” said the former investigator. “There are two walls that overlook the rink, which people lean over to look at the skaters-so what they’re doing is, they’re exposing their buttocks.”

(A spokeswoman for Rockefeller Center from the public-relations firm Rubenstein & Associates declined to comment for this article.)

There is no typical bumper. “It’s just normal-looking people,” said the former investigator. “It runs the gamut, from pimply-faced fat guys to very suave, nice-looking guys.” One year, they arrested a man who turned out to be a reverend with his own small church in Manhattan. Another bumper kept coming back and was arrested over 10 times.

Like pickpockets, bumpers tend to return to the same locations over and over. Both types of criminals come up close and wait until the victim is distracted before homing in on their target, so the cops will sometimes arrest someone not knowing if he’s a pickpocket or a bumper.

“You’ll look at a pickpocket’s past, and they’ll often have ‘sex offender’ on their record, because the two get confused so often,” said the former investigator. “Often a cop doesn’t want to look down there and check.”

In order to catch the bumper, undercover officers position themselves in key locations around the tree and communicate by radio to cops and Rockefeller Center security guards, who sit in a control center-Room 55 in 30 Rockefeller Plaza-and watch the crowd by video camera. When a bumper is spotted, the cops keep an eye on him as he moves from victim to victim in the crowd. For example, a plainclothes cop will station himself by the museum shop and radio to the control room: “There’s a guy in a white baseball cap, and it looks like he’s crowding somebody.” The guards operating the video camera will zoom in on the suspect. “You spot the guy and say, ‘Aaah, I know who he is-he’s a pervert!’” said the former investigator.

The cop will either arrest the man, if he’s caught in the act and the victim wants to press charges, or just try to get rid of him by tapping him on the shoulder and saying, “Listen, take a walk, will you? Go someplace else and find someone else to bump against.” Sometimes the cops try to get rid of a bumper by embarrassing him, saying, “Hi, havin’ fun? Whaddaya got in there?”

If a bumper is already focused on the woman in front of him, he’s surprisingly easy to catch. “When they’re on the person, they’re so focused; they’re in a state of sexual high,” said the former investigator. They won’t even notice that a cop is standing right next to them.

If an arrest is called for, the officer grabs the bumper and leads him through the revolving doors of 30 Rock and up to Room 55, where he’s placed in a small holding pen.

“They’d actually have semen in their hands and all over their coats,” said a retired police officer who worked the Rockefeller Center beat.

“You take them upstairs, grab their arms and you open his coat up, and he’s hanging out,” said the former investigator.

At first, the bumpers deny everything. When the cops open their coats and ask, “What are you doing with that out?”, they’ll often say, “Oh, I was going to the bathroom and I forgot to put it back.”

Once he realizes he’s been found out-either because he’s been caught on video or through the discovery of a prior arrest record-the bumper may break down and grovel, saying: “I can’t help it. I know I’m sick. I’ve been to the doctors and I can’t help it.”

The bumper’s picture is taken and filed in case he comes back. The cops then lock him up for a few hours, but the average bumper is rarely sent to jail. “What can we do?” said the former investigator. “Inject him with something to make him normal?”

Going through with a prosecution is tricky.

“The cop would grab the guy, and we’d want to prosecute,” said the retired officer. “But I’ve seen dads and families that don’t want to know about it. How can you ask a father if this guy was rubbing against his daughter? The father doesn’t want to know.”

If the case does go to court, judges will often make the bumper see a court-appointed psychologist rather than sentence him to jail time. Legally, bumpers inhabit a shadowy realm that falls between jostling and sexual abuse-and without physical injury to the victim, it’s hard to make a case for the latter.

In addition, parents are hesitant to put their daughters through the stress and mortification of a trial, especially if they’re from out of town.

“You get a 12-year-old girl from Illinois coming into town with her family,” said the former investigator. “This guy’s bumping up against her. They’re not going to come back to New York for a trial.