This is the second part of a two-part series exploring what happens after victims of sexual battery report an incident to police. You can read Part 1 here.
Margot Kenney was followed to her home by a stranger and groped. The man fled when she shouted and fought back. Jennifer Tickes was snatched from a Mission street one morning last October and carried down the block before managing to escape. Hillary Lannan was on her way home from a bar last year when she was approached from behind and thrown to the ground, where her assailants tugged at the strap of her bag before groping her and then fleeing. Meredith Yayanos heard a woman screaming outside her apartment in early August, and raced outside to find a woman who had been followed, grabbed by the crotch, and thrown against the wall.
All reported their cases to the police, but the fact that anyone was assaulted never made it to the public — except when the women individually contacted reporters or used social media — because the San Francisco Police Department’s policy is to keep sexual assaults and rapes off of its daily crime reports. It does so, according to SFPD spokesperson Officer Grace Gatpandan, to protect the privacy of the victims.
Some jurisdictions and advocates, however, argue that the daily reports are already anonymized and wonder if more public awareness of sex crimes would help prevention and increase arrest rates. As it stands, the media policy on sex crimes means that looking at local media coverage fails to reveal the 66 cases of sexual battery that were reported to Mission Station between April 2013 and April 2015. Of those 66, 15 led to arrests and nine suspects were ultimately charged.
Nor did police pass on to local media reports of the 67 rapes reported to Mission Station in a two-year period between April of 2012 and 2014 (more recent data have not been released). Citywide, there were 355 cases of rape in 2014, up from 161 in 2013.
“I think it’s horrifying that these assaults are happening on a regular basis and there’s no watermark left behind,” said Yayanos, who witnessed the assault near her home and has herself been aggressively sexually harassed. “I understand the necessity for keeping things confidential and keeping people from being violated a second time, but there’s got to be some middle ground, there’s got to be some solution.”
Some jurisdictions do include these assaults in reports to the media.
In Arlington, VA, for example, Public information officer Dustin Sternbeck said the department recently received tips and social media input from the public that have helped identify a suspect in a two-week spree of four sexual assaults on women walking alone at night.
But in San Francisco, sexual assaults are omitted from reports made available to the media and the public.
Crime Mapping, an online mapping service that partners with many local police departments to show an interactive map of calls for service, includes sexual assault, but no description of what happened to prompt the call. The map also includes calls reporting sexual assaults where officers arrived at the scene to find the victim had disappeared, no evidence of an assault, or where the victim retracted the report. In the Mission, the map also includes all the reports made at San Francisco General Hospital, but happened elsewhere.
An extract of sexual assault data from CrimeMapping information. By Cristiano Valli
In San Francisco, if police have a basic description from the victim, like height, weight, age, and race in a sexual assault case, it’s unavailable except by specific request. Press releases about sexual assault suspects are only sent out when the suspect information is detailed enough to create a sketch, or when photo or video of the suspect surfaces. Otherwise, the assault becomes another tally in the weekly crime statistics, with no explanation of what happened. Robberies, stabbings, and shootings, however, are reported with details about how and where the crimes occurred. A bare-bones suspect description is also included.
Interpreting the Law
Oakland’s police department also omits sexual assaults from its reports to the media. This redaction is “to preserve the integrity of ongoing investigations and to protect victims as required by law,” according to the department’s site.
That law is Government Code 6254, a state law which ensures that the names and identifying information of victims of sensitive crimes like domestic violence, sexual assault, and child abuse are not revealed.
Police departments, however, interpret the law differently, according to the Davis Police Department, which does include descriptions of sexual assaults in their crime recaps. They also sometimes release general locations.
Berkeley’s police department no longer issues a crime report to the media, but includes all of its crimes including sexual assaults on its call for service log. Reporters then call with the case numbers to get more information.
Jennifer Coates, a public information officer for the department, said the police try to be careful about releasing information that could tip off a repeat offender that the victim went to the police.
“We don’t want people to be revictimized,” she said, “but we also try to balance the community’s need of knowing what’s going on, and I think that’s why we at least try to have the log so that people know that certain crimes have occurred.”
Jim Dudley, a lecturer at San Francisco State Univeristy and former police captain of Park Station, sad that while officers would have to take care not to publish any information that could identify the victim, an informed public can be helpful in preventing crimes.
“When I wrote a newsletter where I was a captain, my number one priority would be to arm the residents with knowledge of incidents happening where there was still an outstanding suspects,” he said. “So if I was a captain of a station where there were three sexual batteries where there were still an outstanding suspect, I’d want to put that out there.”
Still, however, the San Francisco police department says that it has always been policy to keep sexual assault and rape crimes out of the recap of crimes that it sends to the media.
Finding the Numbers
Rapes are tallied in the department’s mandatory CompStat reports, but information about sexual battery is difficult to obtain in San Francisco in part because records are kept inconsistently across different record types – in printed, handwritten and electronic forms.
SFPD’s Officer Gatpandan said this happens for a number of reasons. Investigators can choose how they keep their own case files. They can also decide when to file supplemental reports. Some prefer to hand write the reports because the standardized electronic records lack the “human element” and details necessary for proper crime tallying and analysis.
As a result, Ed Santos, acting captain of the SFPD Special Victims Unit, commented that “digging into our system is never easy.”
He also explained that the police department’s crime analysis section is relatively new.
“So it takes a lot of giving them specifics to what you’re looking for and hoping that they will be able to give you what you’re asking,” Santos said.
Janelle White, director of San Francisco Women Against Rape, has also observed the police struggling with legacy systems.
“It’s funny, for San Francisco, you would think that tech would be something that might be more advanced than in other counties, other states,” she said. “It feels like that would be something that in general would make the lives of the officers and inspectors better … to be able to track numbers and communicate with officials in the police department and the community.”