The San Francisco Police Department and the District Attorney’s Office are seriously lacking in how they handle rape cases, and it’s unclear how or how quickly they will make improvements – if at all.
That was made clear at a Wednesday Board of Supervisors hearing called by District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen, who said she had received a multitude of anecdotes about how the system had failed survivors of rape and sexual assault. She was especially critical of the SFPD.
“I have heard enough stories that it is clear to me that these are not just a pattern of violence,” she said to a packed hearing room at City Hall. “There is a pattern of treatment that I consider abusive towards rape victims.”
Some of those women spoke at the hearing. All of them described traumatic experiences in which they were raped with drugs or physical force, and met with only neglect or skepticism from police investigators.
Rachel Sutton testified that she was 20 years old in February 2014 when one of her professional mentors raped her when she was half-conscious. “I tried to get help but in the process what I experienced was four and a half years and counting today of negligence and incompetence numerous times in every agency I encountered in the process,” she said.
Tiffany Tonel said she was drugged and raped by a coworker in September 2017, and later learned that the same person had done the same to two of her coworkers. While she was reporting the crime to police, she said, an investigator told her that “everyone involved needs to accept responsibility for their actions.”
Others who spoke described similar experiences with the SFPD. “The police treated me as though I made all this up,” said one woman who said she had been drugged and raped, and later asked police unsuccessfully to interview witnesses and collect video evidence of her drugging.
Listening the whole time was Greg McEachern, commander of the SFPD’s investigations unit. He recognized that the police can do better when interacting with victims as they give their reports.
“What we’re hearing today is sometimes something is said to a survivor … is less-than-acceptable,” he said.
Ronen wanted more.
“After hearing these stories, what’s going to happen next?” Ronen asked McEachern after she blasted the SFPD for its part in the women’s’ stories. “What’s going to happen when you leave this room and talk to the chief of police today?”
McEachern did not answer the question. Instead, he explained that the SFPD has improved in recent years and is working with advocacy groups and gives mandatory training to officers. He said that the number of investigators in the Special Victims Unit has increased to 45, from 35 last year.
“We tell our officers to look at survivors in two ways,” he said. “If that was a family member of yours, how would you expect that department to investigate that crime … how would you expect your loved one to be treated?”
Still, District 8 Supervisor Jeff Sheehy wondered why the SFPD was not making arrests. “What I am hearing is that women are reporting sexual assault and they know who did it, and it doesn’t sound like an arrest is taking place,” he said.
McEachern said there is not always enough evidence for the District Attorney’s Office to establish probable cause and make an arrest.
But Ronen cited the example of the women who unsuccessfully requested that investigators obtain video evidence at a bar in which she was drugged. She also mentioned Tonel’s testimony that investigators refused to interview two other women who Tonel believed had been rape in a similar way by the same person.
“You are having women come forward and suggest how you can collect enough evidence to have probable cause to make an arrest … they are being refused, and that evidence isn’t collected,” she said. “How is the DA able to charge a case when the evidence is not collected in the first place?”
Cristine Soto DeBerry, the District Attorney’s chief of staff, said that her office could do better at collecting evidence through a supplemental report, “so we can assure that we are getting the maximum amount of evidence available,” she said.
But both Ronen and Sheehy pressed DeBerry on why her office is not bringing enough cases. They both suggested that prosecutors only charge cases they’re confident they can win.
“I know these are difficult cases to bring forward, but we have got to do the best that we can otherwise this feeling of impunity will continue out there,” Ronen said.
DeBerry said, in 2016 the office successfully prosecuted 75 percent of their sexual assault cases. In 2017 they won 70 percent, and this year, so far, the DA prosecuted 100 percent.
“That tells me you are not bringing enough cases – you are only bringing ones that you can win on,” Sheehy said. “If you don’t try cases you can’t bring people to justice.”
At the very least, victims would see that someone was arrested.
“Yes, you may lose, but someone was arrested,” Sheehy said.