Source photo for illustration: Greta Mart

After Margot Kenney was followed to her home and groped last year, she immediately called the police.

And then, she waited.

It took weeks, she said, to finally hear from the investigator assigned to her case. When he spoke with her, she offered suggestions of where to look for video footage. Weeks later, he still had not collected new footage or even begun to pursue her case, she said. Instead, he told Kenney it was highly unlikely the suspect would be caught.

Discouraged, Kenney tried for several more weeks to elicit action on new leads she found. When nothing happened, she reported the investigator to his supervisor and was told he would be given a talking to. It’s unclear if he was disciplined, however, since the police did not respond to a request for comment.

A look at Kenney’s case and the cases of three other Mission women who reported similar frustration with the police response their sexual assaults point to the difficulty of such cases for victims, police and prosecutors. Victims are often left feeling slighted by police inspectors, cases often disappear into police files, and the public rarely hears about any of this because the San Francisco police do not include sexual assaults or rapes in their daily crime recaps to the media. 

Follow Ups Fall Short

On August 5, Meredith Yayanos was at her apartment on South Van Ness near 25th when she heard a woman screaming. She ran outside in time to hear someone sprinting away, and learned from the screaming woman that someone had followed her along the street for a few blocks before grabbing her by the crotch and throwing her against the wall. When she screamed and made a scene, the man fled.

Within a few minutes, police cars appeared. One car moved off in the direction the suspect had fled, while other officers took a report. But to Yayanos, the response, while quick, seemed dispassionate.

“One of them literally said, ‘So what do you want us to do?’” Yayanos recalled.  “It wasn’t impolite, but it was just like, ‘Do you want to come give a statement? Do you want to come down to the courthouse?’ And she was so obviously shaken and freaked out. It felt really frustrating because they’re going to file a basic report and then nothing’s going to happen, nothing’s going to change.”

Jennifer Tickes, who was snatched from Mission Street one morning last October by a man and carried down the street before managing to escape, had a similarly discouraging experience. She said she had called the police and was repeatedly told to go to San Francisco General Hospital.

When she said she didn’t have any significant injuries, she was told there was little the police could do for her. Though she had planned on confronting officers with her situation at Mission Station, she ultimately decided against filing a report.

“When victims report a violent crime, or in this case a potential sexual assault or trafficking incident, you’re not operating at 100 percent. I was vulnerable, frantic, and wanting to block out the entire experience,” Tickes wrote in an email. “Looking back, the initial intake process of reporting this incident wasn’t any different than contesting traffic citation. There is a real learning opportunity for [the police] to coach their teams on how to handle those kinds of calls if they want to be be reported more often.”

Another woman, Hilary Lannan, was on her way back from a bar near Precita and Mission streets heading to her home on Bartlett near 24th in October last year when she was approached from behind and thrown to the ground. There, her assailants tugged on the strap of her bag, which held several electronics, but then briefly groped her before fleeing in a vehicle without taking any of her valuables. She, too, filed a report, but nothing came of it beyond a few voicemails exchanged between her and an special victims unit investigator assigned to the case.

Barriers to Prosecution

Sexual battery cases, which often don’t leave their victims injured or raped, present their own unique challenges because they are hard to prove, hard to charge, and nearly impossible to prosecute.

Jim Dudley, a lecturer at San Francisco State University and a former police officer who at one time also served as captain of Park Station, said sexual battery cases face the challenge of requiring proof that a groper or assailant intended to do something for sexual gratification or with malicious intent.

“If you’re on a MUNI bus and somebody presses against you or stands too close or actually puts their hand on your butt or something, you’re gonna have to pretty much prove the intent,” Dudley said. “And I would imagine that the [district attorney] in the charging of that kind of case, a misdemeanor, is going to hinge on an identifiable suspect and something that would go beyond someone trying to get by you on the bus.”

That may affect a report’s chance of being taken seriously. A 2014 study using a small number of anonymous interviews with officers in an unnamed Midwestern town showed that the likelihood of a case being successfully prosecuted often factored into police officers’ perception of the legitimacy of rape reports.

Though Dudley said a theoretical prosecution should not affect an officer’s attitude toward someone reporting any sex crime, others worry it may not be far from their minds.

“If the police know that most cases are not going to be charged, it’s kind of this self perpetuating situation. How hard do you work to investigate?” asked Janelle White, director of San Francisco Women Against Rape.

But the biggest challenge in sexual battery cases is finding a suspect. None of the four victims in this story were able to identify their assailants, and that essentially ends the case.

“It’s difficult if you only have ‘jeans and a dark hoodie.’ There’s not a lot of evidentiary value there,” said Dudley. “If you have a video of their face, if you have a picture of their face, if you have a vehicle description, that’s what you need for a follow up. Short of that, there’s not much you can do if you don’t have any kind of evidence or connection to the suspect.”

This is part 1 of a two-part report on sexual battery victims and what happens after they report crimes to the police. Look for Part 2 tomorrow. 

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  1. These “quality of life” crimes among the continuing results of the current “progressive” city government’s de-emphasis on the so-called “war on the poor.”

    When you have a “progressive” board of supervisors that does not support adding more police to the currently understaffed force; is against putting security cameras to deter crime or help in gathering evidence; and is against enforcing prosecution of quality of life crimes, then this is the result….

    Police are not backed up by prosecutors so they get disheartened … After all what’s the point in wasting their time and energy?

    The police force is severely understaffed at the will of a few loudmouth progressive supervisors who foist their own utopian political views on the rest of the SF citizens. There are many victims of these policies – including Katie Steinle (pier shooting), the Bologna family, and countless victims of sexual battery, assault, property crimes and more.

    SF progressive Institutionalize policies that allow and even encourage lawlessness are not victimless, but our policy makers – and ultimately the voters – have blindly fallen for a rhetoric for which they are not yet fully aware of the consequences — until they become victims of it themselves, and then wonder why nothing is being done to help them.

    Wake up people!

    1. I don’t think the Police Department is “severely” understaffed or that “progressive” supervisors adopt policies that somehow lead the police not to investigate these type of crimes. That’s a uninformed view of how city government works, especially since the “progressives” don’t control the Board of Supervisors and the Board doesn’t control the Police Department. I can assure you that if the Police Dept wanted to make these crimes a priority for investigation, the resources would be made available to do so.

      1. An understaffed police force does not have the resources to investigate all the crimes that need investigating. The progressive policies that call for less enforcement of and punishment for existing crimes, leads to increased levels of crime. This may seem obvious to most people in the rest of the country, but somehow seems to escape the twisted progressive logic.

        An uninformed view of how the city government works (or doesn’t work, as is often the case in SF) is to assume that the progressive policies that de-emphasize enforcement of laws and seek to de-criminalize certain crimes has no effect on how the police do their jobs. This is not just from the Supervisors, but also from the (progressive) Mirkarimi’s Sheriff’s office (let’s not forget the high profile murderers released among our midst because of these policies), the prosecutors, etc. From Terrance Halinan and Kamala Harris to the current cast of progressive characters that seek to foist their political agenda on the citizens of San Francisco.

        I have personally had police officers tell me it’s not worth my time or theirs to press charges in certain property crime cases because nothing will come of it. It’s disheartening for the victims of crime. And it’s disheartening for the police officers who arrest criminals time and time again, to see them out on the street hours later.

        It is also uninformed to state that the Supervisors have no say in what happens with the police. In fact, in June, Scott Weiner (who was one of the Supervisors who does in fact support increasing police staffing) announced: “Today the Board of Supervisors passed a resolution calling for significantly increased police staffing levels to reflect San Francisco’s significant population growth, including adjusting the definition of “minimum staffing” upward by several hundred officers.

        Of course the usual “progressive” supervisors such as John Avalos, David Campos, Jane Kim opposed the measure.

        In terms of the police department being under-staffed, SF had set a minimum staffing level in 1994 of 1,971 officers, and we currently have about 10% fewer officers than that, even though the population has increased 13% since that time. And this doesn’t even account for the high numbers of tourists who visit the city as well.

        According to the FBI Uniform Crime Report, between 2012 and 2013 in San Francisco, the rate of reported rapes rose by 47%; aggravated assaults, 23%; and robberies, 18%. Yet we have fewer officers than ever, and they’re often kept busy policing the myriad crimes and problems caused by the vast homeless population, the numerous anti-police protests, etc.

        According to a recent post by Weiner: “This staffing places San Francisco behind peer cities such as Washington, DC, Chicago, and Philadelphia in terms of police officers per capita, as shown in a report conducted by the Controller’s Office… As a result of this severe decline in staffing – at a time when San Francisco’s population has grown and when new neighborhoods have been created – the police department is under-staffed. This under-staffing has led to a reduction in beat-walking and traffic enforcement, as well as less focus on property crimes… Supervisor Wiener and Cohen’s resolution takes that population growth into account by redefining full police staffing as over 2,200.”

        Obviously I could go on and on, but actual facts don’t seem to matter to progressive supporters, so I will end here.