Kelly O’Connor had just finished working a double shift at Foreign Cinema on Mission Street when she walked a block over to Doc’s Clock for a nightcap.
It was late June, 2018, the Sunday of Pride weekend, and O’Connor didn’t stay long — it was approaching 11 p.m. and she was tired. She chatted a bit with the bartender and some regulars, drank a beer, and then decided to check on her car.
The 25-year-old made her way to the vehicle, parked on 22nd and Fair Oaks. But as she neared Guerrero and 22nd, everything went dark. “The last thing I remember is having my keys in my hand,” she said.
O’Connor woke up early the next morning in the back seat of her car. Her dress was backward, her underwear was missing, and there was a massive bump on the back of her head. “I couldn’t figure out what was going on,” she said.
But O’Connor’s problems were just beginning. Her case, she said, was not taken seriously — even after pledges from the San Francisco Police Department a year ago.
“What I know we can do better on is how we interact with those survivors … what information we provide, how timely we do it, how we respond to questions or concerns and how we deliver the message,” said then-Commander Greg McEachern.
Those pledges were made in April 2018 after more than a dozen survivors of sexual assault testified at a Board of Supervisors hearing that the SFPD habitually underserved rape survivors — questioning their integrity, asking them to take responsibility for the assaults, and failing to pursue key evidence.
Nearly a year later, little appears to have changed, according to interviews with survivors, advocates, and City Hall sources. The SFPD’s Special Victims Unit, they contend, continues to treat vulnerable survivors with skepticism, aloofness, and neglect.
After a series of legal ultimatums, that frustration boiled over when survivors sued the SFPD and city May 7. They charge it has, for years, failed to follow state law requiring the expedient delivery of crucial documents to domestic violence and sexual assault survivors, documents that would enable them to file restraining orders.
“We had a hearing and the department said they were going to make changes and they didn’t,” said Carolina Morales, a legislative aide to Supervisor Hillary Ronen. Ronen called the hearing more than a year ago, and pushed to establish an office to bring greater scrutiny to the deficiencies in law enforcement’s response.
“They were going to make changes and make policy,” Morales continued. “And yet, we’re here a year later, and we’re in the same place.”
That place can be devastating for women who have experienced the trauma of sexual violence.
When O’Connor woke up on June 25 of last year, she said, she was completely disoriented. Nonetheless, she managed to walk to the urgent care on 22nd and Valencia Streets and told the front desk that she believed she had been sexually assaulted. The employees there, she said, told her to go to San Francisco General Hospital. She worried about the cost of an ambulance, so she asked the front desk attendant to call the police, who could drive her there.
After 45 minutes, the police didn’t arrive. Finally, a friend picked O’Connor up and drove her to the hospital. Once there, she waited five hours for two police officers to arrive as hospital staff performed a rape exam. While she waited, she tried to remember what had happened to her.
A hospital social worker warned her that the police may or may not take her seriously.
The uniformed officers arrived, interviewed O’Connor, and gave her the option of waiting for a Special Victims Unit investigator to conduct another interview on behalf of the investigations unit, or go home and have the department contact her. Having already waited for many hours, she opted to go home.
Meanwhile, O’Connor’s roommate, Maggie Gabos, accompanied officers to O’Connor’s car. She discovered that the Liberties Bar & Grill had cameras pointed directly at the vehicle. The owners, Gabos said, told her that footage was on a loop and would be erased in five days. They’d better act fast, the owners warned. Gabos said that Officer Danny Burns assured her that investigators would collect the evidence.
That didn’t happen.
The following week, when O’Connor and Gabos were being interviewed at the Special Victims Unit at 850 Bryant St., they asked the investigator assigned to O’Connor’s case what the video evidence had turned up. He hadn’t collected it, he said. It was gone.
“It was my Friday,” both women remember Sgt. Hector Morales offering as a reason for not collecting the evidence. He received the case on a Thursday and would begin his weekend on Friday, he explained.
O’Connor says that Morales told her that if only she had waited for SVU investigators at the hospital, this wouldn’t have happened. The evidence would have been collected on time.
“That was just really shitty to hear,“ said O’Connor. “I felt it was very brushed under the rug.”
Gabos agreed. “Right off the bat we didn’t get the sense that [Sgt. Morales] was actively pursuing the case.”
That is a charge that continues to dog the SFPD. Rape survivors have complained repeatedly that they are not taken seriously.
The San Francisco Police Department — like many police departments across the country — has come under increasing scrutiny for how it handles and investigates sexual assault cases, driven in part by the #MeToo movement and a related spike of reported sexual assault cases.
Sexual assault reports to police increased by 21.9 percent in 2017 compared to 2016 (from 694 to 846). Victims reported 821 sexual assaults in 2018. As of March 5, 2019, 121 assaults have been reported, which prorates to 701 for the year.
Despite a recent swell of sexual assault survivors coming forward and increasing pressure on the department to handle these cases better, SFPD has been slow to change.
Multiple sexual assault survivors told Mission Local that the SFPD investigators assigned to their cases have treated them as though they were the criminals, and failed to collect evidence.
O’Connor’s assault occurred after the hearing chaired by Ronen and the department’s subsequent pledges it would improve service. But she fared no better than the women who testified about poor treatment. Several women whose assaults were still being investigated as the hearings were underway told Mission Local that the handling of their cases — as well as the department’s treatment of them — failed to improve afterward.
Experts, former police investigators, and former prosecutors told Mission Local that the investigators’ treatment of survivors is symptomatic of a system in desperate need of change.
In fact, it is one of the most overlooked areas of police reform in San Francisco.
Not one of the 272 reform recommendations made in 2016 by the U.S. Department of Justice addressed the conditions in the department’s Special Victims Unit and its treatment of rape survivors. Instead, any attempt at reform has come by way of recommendations from the Department of Police Accountability, which crafts policy recommendations based on citizen complaints. There is no mechanism that compels the SFPD to adopt them.
It is unclear if the San Francisco Police Department has at even made attempts to improve its handling of cases. The department did not make the head of the unit available for an interview, nor did it respond to questions regarding its ongoing efforts.
The SFPD did not respond to questions regarding Sgt. Morales’ alleged failure to collect evidence.
A woman, wishing only to be referred to as “Jane Doe” for this article, said that she was raped by an ex-partner in October 2017 — a man she knew and had previously been dating. Doe said that after he invited himself into her apartment, the man forcibly had sex with her without her consent.
Roughly a month later, Doe said, she called the SFPD’s Special Victims Unit to schedule an appointment with an investigator, explaining on the phone that she was afraid to come forward and feared that the alleged perpetrator would find out.
The officer, she recalled, responded: “If you’re lying, we can arrest you for that.”
She met with the police anyway and recounted the alleged rape. Nevertheless, Doe said, investigators focused less on her accusations and more on issues related to her out-of-state driver’s license.
“It was really draining, because I was trying to convince them I wasn’t lying about my driver’s license,” she said. “They put me in a position where I was super nervous and so afraid they were going to accuse me about lying about other stuff.”
Over the last 15 months, she said that she’s had four different detectives assigned to her case, and each time she’s had to recount the same wrenching details. Even after the SFPD told the Board of Supervisors it would improve how it treated survivors, Doe feels as though the investigators have largely focused on discrediting her.
“Every time, I’m being recorded and being treated like a criminal,” she said.
Another woman, who asked to go by Lillian, said that she was raped in her home by an acquaintance in February 2018. The next day, she walked to San Francisco General Hospital, where she had a rape kit performed and was, eventually, questioned by uniformed police officers.
After Lillian waited for more than seven hours at the hospital, two inspectors from the Special Victims Unit arrived. One of the investigators, a man, asked her: “Are you aware that you’re making a very serious allegation?”
She said the investigators asked their questions “in a very accusing manner, very threatening.”
The female investigator asked Lillian if she wanted to do a so-called “pretext call,” when a survivor attempts to have a perpetrator admit to the assault over the phone. She declined because did not feel like speaking to the man she accused of raping her.
In response, the female investigator “said, ‘Well then you don’t have a case,’’’ Lillian said. “She was really bullying.”
After Lillian made it clear that she did not want to do the call, she said, the investigators left.
In the following weeks, Lillian said, the treatment she received from the investigators was no better. The female investigator became angry when Lillian revealed that she told the alleged perpetrator that she was speaking to the police. “You just made my work so much more difficult,” Lillian remembers the female investigator saying. But Lillian just wanted her alleged attacker to leave her alone.
“I went to them for help,” she said. “I was turned into the criminal.”
More than two weeks after the incident, investigators spoke to the alleged perpetrator, and told Lillian that police would not be making an arrest. Her case, the investigator said, was “inactive.”
“You are now a suspect,’” Lillian recalls being told during a curt phone call. A suspect for making a false allegation.
Despite this, Lillian still wanted the results for her rape kit, but she says the investigator refused to give them to her. Lillian tried for nearly a year to obtain the results of her rape kit following the arrest decision, but the investigator would not budge, she said.
It was only in February of this year, when Lillian was accompanied by a representative from a city supervisor’s office, that the SFPD handed over the police report. It disclosed that the man who she accused of raping her had, indeed, had intercourse with her during the night in question.
Jane Manning, director of advocacy for Women’s Justice Now and a former New York City prosecutor, works with survivors in San Francisco. She said cases like those of O’Connor, Doe, and Lillian are not uncommon — even after the police department was called out last spring.
Manning said around a dozen survivors in San Francisco have found their way to her since 2016, and have shared similar stories of mistreatment by local investigators from the Special Victims Unit. Since last spring, Manning said, she has detected no improvement in the unit’s treatment of survivors — and no effort to make improvements.
“Police officers are still treating victims like suspects. They are still asking questions that are inappropriate and irrelevant. They are still failing to conduct thorough fact-finding investigations in rape cases,” she said.
Joanne Archambault, the CEO of End Violence Against Women International and a former investigator with the San Diego Police Department, agreed.
Based on their training, Archambault said, investigators can easily “flip the tables” on survivors during interviews. “When victims don’t present in the ways we expect them to present, we think they’re lying,” said the former investigator. “We flip that table pretty fast with victims and start interrogating them.”
So why haven’t conditions changed?
“The SFPD and SFDA’s office don’t think it’s politically necessary to take rape seriously, so they haven’t figured out a way to take rape cases to trial,” said Manning.
Former law enforcement officers and prosecutors who spoke to Mission Local agree that consistent complaints of police investigators mistreating alleged survivors of rape can be traced back to a ripple effect starting with a juries’ misconceptions about what rape is.
“We have a lot work to do convincing a jury about the realities of sexual assault — that force is generally not used,” said Jane Anderson, a former Miami-Dade County prosecutor who trains prosecutors how to better prosecute rape cases. She works through AEquitas, a research organization focused on changing how institutions treat gender-based violence.
“Drugs and alcohol are more likely,” she said. “Victims tend to freeze.”
Because rape cases can be hard to sell to a jury, prosecutors are reluctant to pick them up, making the threshold of useable evidence seemingly impossible to collect, the experts agreed. Investigators, meanwhile, may build what they believe is a strong case, but prosecutors turn them down, afraid of losing.
“We cops blame DAs for not taking anything and the DAs blame juries,” said Archambault of End Violence Against Women International and a former investigator with the San Diego Police Department.
“When we get a DA to take a case and a DA works their heart out on a case,” she continued, “a jury doesn’t always get it.”
The same effect is happening in San Francisco, said a survivor advocate who requested anonymity out of fear of harming their ability to work with the SFPD.
“This is an ongoing thing between the DA’s office and SFPD,” the advocate said. “There’s not a good relationship there so what happens sometimes is there are investigators who do a great job and they get as much evidence and they try and turn over — and most of the time the DA will not charge.”
The advocate said, however, that SFPD investigators still struggle with a lack of sensitivity toward survivors of rape. Getting an investigator sensitive enough to a victim’s trauma can be the luck of the draw, the advocate said.
Indeed, of the 694 reported sexual assaults in 2016, the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office reviewed 104 cases and prosecuted 49 of them. Of the 864 in 2017, prosecutors reviewed 88 cases and prosecuted 35. That is to say nothing of the conviction rate, data for which was not immediately available, according to Max Szabo, a spokesman for the DA’s office.
Szabo emphasized, however, that the prosecution rates — 47.1 percent in 2016 and 39.8 percent in 2017 — are above the national average of 19 percent. (He also cautioned that a number of cases reviewed by the DA were defined by the national standard and may not exactly line up with SFPD definition of sexual assault, as not every municipality defines sexual assault the same way.)
“Prosecuting sex assault continues to be an imperative for our office, and that’s reflected by prosecution rates that are double the national average,” Szabo wrote in an email. “Nonetheless, we’re constantly striving to improve, and through prevention and education our goal is to reduce victimization, enhance enforcement, and help create an environment in which survivors feel empowered to come forward.”
He added that police can make an arrest when there’s more reason than not to suspect a person has committed a crime based on the evidence. “Oftentimes, police and prosecutors alike conclude that there is probable cause that a crime was committed,” he wrote, “but prosecutors have an ethical burden to only file charges if we believe we can prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt.”
But Manning, the New York-based advocate said blaming the jury and all of the downstream consequences — prosecutors not picking up cases and investigators becoming frustrated and jaded — is a “copout.” (Anderson, the other former prosecutor, agreed that the “blame game is not helpful.”)
“Part of a prosecutor’s job is to know how to win convictions,” Manning said. “If we really care about prosecuting rape, then we’ll cultivate a set of skills and practices in order to win rape cases.”
That will not happen, Manning said, without sufficient local political will. “That’s what’s missing,” she said.
In September, Mayor London Breed signed into law an ordinance authored by Supervisor Hillary Ronen establishing the Sexual Harassment and Assault Response and Prevention (SHARP) office.
The three-person team will work directly with survivors to take complaints, collect data on how cases move through the system, be a liaison between various departments, and make policy recommendations based on complaints and collected data — very much like the Department of Police Accountability.
However, like that department, the office has no legal enforcement powers, only the power to make recommendations.
The first-of-its-kind office, Morales said, should be open by the end of the year. A director has not yet been appointed.
It remains to be seen if this three-person outfit can alter years of entrenched law-enforcement culture. But, for the individual survivors it deals with, it may yet make a difference.
“I’ve come to terms with what’s happened to me but I don’t want this to happen to someone else,” O’Connor said.
But, of course, it will.
“With how things are going, this is going to keep happening,” she continued. “It’s inevitable.”
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