Supervisor Hillary Ronen on Wednesday held a hearing to examine the handling of sexual assault cases by San Francisco public agencies. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Survivors say SF ‘makes a mockery’ of sexual assault cases

With reports of sexual assaults on the rise, a Board of Supervisors committee hearing on Wednesday raised questions about whether San Francisco agencies are mishandling sexual violence cases and blaming victims for their own rapes.

The hearing drew testimony from several sexual assault survivors who said police, prosecutors and hospital staff had failed them in their paths to justice. The accusations ranged from police not thoroughly conducting interviews and gathering video evidence to hospital staff improperly collecting a urine sample.

“These are not just a few isolated incidents,” said Supervisor Hillary Ronen, who called the hearing. “There is a pattern of negligence and mistreatment that I consider abusive towards rape victims. These are city employees who are blaming the victims for their own assaults, disregarding the severity of these rapes.”

The survivors spoke out on the heels of the #MeToo movement against sexual violence and harassment, which picked up steam last October after allegations first surfaced against Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein.

The latest numbers show that more women and men are reporting sexual assaults at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital. Staff there saw 401 sexual assault patients in 2016-17 — a 21 percent increase over the year prior, according to Catherine Classen, director of the Division of Trauma Recovery Services.

Since Tiffany Tonel told the San Francisco Police Department in October 2016 that a coworker drugged and raped her, she said a Special Victims Unit investigator has not taken her case seriously. Tonel said the investigator told her “‘There is no doubt you had sex, what it comes down to is your state of mind.’”

“This system has failed me and several others and needs to change,” Tonel said. “The monster who raped me is still out there. There were two other women at my workplace he raped in the exact same way. I wasn’t the first and I won’t be the last. He is the most common predator out there and there are loads of men like him who need to be stopped.”

After a supervisor raped her in February 2014, Rachel Sutton said she sought help from authorities but only experienced “negligence and incompetence.” Sutton waited hours at the hospital for her blood to be drawn and was allowed to urinate before an exam — “a practice that decreases available evidence.”

“Going through this process is not liberating or freeing,” Sutton said. “Victims like myself get nothing… It’s been nearly half a decade since my rape investigation started and I am drowning, gasping for air.”

Another woman, a Human Rights Commission employee who identified herself at the hearing as Jane Doe, said a man drugged and raped her at a bar in January 2016. She said the police investigator on her case took his time processing toxicology results and did not seek out key witnesses.

“This is not hyperbole, SFPD makes a mockery of rape investigations and rape victims,” the woman said. “I couldn’t believe that I had been raped and the police didn’t even care. It is demoralizing and maddening, every day I suffer with severe depression and anxiety.”

In response to their stories, SFPD Cmdr. Greg McEachern said investigators and officers could improve their communications with sexual assault survivors, including by updating sexual assault survivors on their cases in a timely manner.

“What we’re hearing today is that oftentimes something that is said to a survivor and the manner it is said to the survivor, how it’s received by them, is less than an acceptable manner for that,” McEachern said. “What I know we can do better is how we interact with those survivors during that time.”

McEachern said the SFPD has already beefed up staffing in the SVU since last year from 35 officers to around 45. The department also cleared a backlog of rape kits amid scrutiny in recent years. Investigators now obtain rape kit results within 20 to 30 days, McEachern said.

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