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.