As April kicks off, so too does Sexual Assault Awareness Month — a month dedicated to speaking out against sexual assault and supporting survivors.
April also marks the one year anniversary of hearings held at City Hall in which survivors came forward to share how the system had failed them and to advocate for reform. One year out, it’s time to check in and see if San Francisco’s actions around combating sexual assault match its rhetoric.
First, some data and definitions. Even for those of us working in the field, the numbers around sexual assault are jaw-dropping. One in three women and one in six men will experience some form of sexual violence in their lifetime. But these statistics likely under-represent the problem given that, in the United States, an estimated three in four sexual assaults go unreported. Even of the 230 rapes that are reported out of every 1,000, only 46 or seven percent lead to arrest, nine cases or one percent get referred to the District Attorney, and five cases or .5 percent lead to a felony conviction.
San Francisco does a bit better than these national statistics; recent research from 2017 shows that out of 757 reports of adult sexual assault in 2016, 297 or 39 percent were investigated, 91 or 12 percent referred to the District Attorney, and 11 cases or two percent of adult and child sexual assaults went to trial, leading to nine guilty verdicts which is one percent. But these rates of arrest and conviction are still low compared to other violent crimes like murder, robbery, and assault.
From our experiences working in rape crisis counseling and criminal justice, we have seen that a persistent driver of these low reporting, arrest, and conviction rates is the lack of survivor-centered policies. To be survivor-centered means to prioritize survivors’ needs, wellbeing, and healing — as they communicate it — in the aftermath of their assault. At first blush, this may seem at odds with law enforcement’s objective of holding perpetrators accountable. But being survivor-centered actually helps law enforcement achieve that objective, as survivors who want to pursue legal action are more likely to continue collaborating with a system that treats them respectfully.
Sadly, that is not always true in San Francisco. In many ways, the system we have now is actually perpetrator-centered, as survivors’ feelings are disregarded for the sake of catching the person who harmed them. As described in last year’s hearings around the mishandling of sexual assault investigations and prosecutions, survivors were not being believed by police or prosecutors, their needs dismissed, and their cases disregarded.
Most of the progress since last year’s hearings has come in the form of agency reports about the scope of the problem and possible solutions. For example, in their recently released 2018 Third Quarter Report, the Department of Police Accountability laid out recommendations for improving the reporting process for survivors. This included policies that ensure survivors are given a private space to report in police stations and that survivors receive their reports within five days.
Stakeholders have also convened around best practices for providing police reports to survivors who don’t live in the area with the hope of eliminating the in-person requirement. However, nothing was finalized at this meeting and the next steps were left unclear.
Similarly, the Office of Sexual Harassment and Assault Response and Prevention, considered by some to be a policy win for survivors, has yet to be fully established. Moreover, critics argue that it does not have enough teeth to actually hold the system accountable to survivors and instead creates another layer of bureaucracy for survivors to deal with.
While holding hearings and creating spaces for survivors to tell their story is important, we need survivor-centered policies that address the culture of these agencies. We also need to fundamentally rethink the metrics by which we measure the criminal justice system’s success in this area, not just by arrest or conviction rates but by how survivors access and experience it. Finally, we need people committed to implementing those policies. We need top-down leadership that models what it means to be a survivor-centered law enforcement agency for these policies to be implemented effectively and consistently.
Given the highly masculine ethos of law enforcement agencies, we need to implement reform that transforms the culture of the Police Department and District Attorney’s Office. This could include extending the initial (and brief) sexual assault training for police officers and requiring ongoing training for law enforcement officials and the prosecutors who handle those cases. California certified sexual assault counselors are required to complete ongoing education – law enforcement officials who work with survivors should be held to the same standard. There are many local community-based organizations ready and willing to provide this training if invited to do so. All we need are internal champions advocating for survivor-centered reforms from within the Police Department and District Attorney’s Office.
Having trauma-sensitive and survivor-centered leaders in those positions will bring about the required culture shift we need to finally do right by survivors of sexual assault. Hopefully we’ll be closer to that goal by next April.
Bianca Rosen is a writer, anti-rape activist, and former rape crisis counselor in San Francisco. Leif Dautch is a state prosecutor and candidate for District Attorney of San Francisco. Their views are their own.