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Why Do Oakland Police Dismiss So Many Rape Cases?

On paper, OPD solves 60 percent of reported sexual assaults. Yet, only 13 percent of its cases actually lead to arrest.



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Program Specialist Lacey Tauiliili of the Sexual Assault Response and Recovery Team concurs.

Survivors who are motivated to persevere in the investigation express a sense of anger and desire for justice, she said. "They're looking for justice, because they feel ... they were not deserving of this scenario."

But in some cases, a police investigation can take a year or longer to identify a suspect. "It's very difficult for the survivor to have to deal with a case that is ongoing," Tauiliili said. "So if there is a hit, or they do know who the assailant was, they call the assailant with the survivor, they go through all these different processes that just continually affect the victim of this case, and that constant re-traumatization is very difficult for them to deal with — to the point where they may say, 'I don't want to do this anymore.'"

Pak said that after a long investigation a survivor might decide that she doesn't want to revisit what happened. She might feel, "I've come to terms with my trauma; I've been through a year of therapy; I've been functioning well. Do I really want to tackle this again?"

Survivors also sometimes feel a great deal of shame because of the assault or related domestic violence, Pak said. For other survivors there are language and cultural barriers, he said, despite the use of interpreters by phone or in person. Some survivors of color feel they won't be believed by the police. Sex workers, meanwhile, are often afraid they will get into trouble if they report a sexual assault to police.

One challenge in rape cases that is almost never an issue with other types of crime is the difficulty of proving that sex between people who know each other was not consensual.

"They bear the burden of having to prove that they didn't consent, right?" Pak said. "And so that's the complexity of sexual assault. It becomes, oftentimes — and I'm going to use gender here — 'he said/she said,' because that's the majority of what we see come through here."

This dynamic is compounded by another truth about sexual assaults, Pak said. "The majority of sexual assaults are by people that you know, that you maybe willingly and consensually engaged in a relationship, whether it's friendship, platonic, whether it be intimate, right, or maybe it's an ex or something — that complicates things."

Pak also suggested that the large number of "social determinants" affecting the lives of many Oakland residents sometimes prevent survivors from pressing charges.

"We reach out to each and every person that we touch, and as diligent as we are, if they don't have a cell phone, if they don't have a home phone, if they don't have a home, how are we supposed to reach out to them?" Pak noted. "Here in Oakland, we're dealing with a housing crisis; we're dealing with homelessness; we're dealing with drug addiction. We're dealing with so many different social determinants that are impacting someone's life. Some of our survivors don't really want to participate, because they've just got to survive and take care of their kids as a single mom. They just can't take time off of work to meet with an officer.

"When we do our trainings, what we do tell people for sexual assault, especially in the Oakland population — for some people, it's the worst day of their life, and for some people, it's just another day in their life."

At Highland Hospital, whenever someone comes into the emergency room saying they've been raped, members of the Sexual Assault Response and Recovery Team take them into immediate care. A team worker accompanies each assault victim through the medical and forensic exams and the immediate and subsequent police interviews. He or she also follows up with survivors in the days and weeks, and sometimes months, afterward.

Besides acting as advocates for crime victims, team employees also take part in new-cadet trainings, where they speak to police officers-in-training about rape trauma syndrome, and the emotions and gaps in memory such trauma can cause.

Pak thinks that, overall, Oakland police do a good job interacting with victims.

"There are times when it's not the officer, but maybe just the questions they have to ask in order to be able to help corroborate this story in this report," Pak said. "I know that they're doing their job. If we're sensing that there's an emotional reaction, a very strong one, OPD's always open when we jump in and say 'Hey, do you need a break?'"

After investigating a crime and gathering all of the relevant evidence, the Oakland Police Department takes its criminal cases to the Alameda County District Attorney's office for prosecution. The charging D.A. then decides whether the evidence demonstrates that a crime was committed, and what crime they will charge the alleged perpetrator with.

According to Senior Prosecutor Teresa Drenick, prosecutors must set a high bar when deciding which cases to proceed with. "The rule for prosecutors is we have to believe that we could go into court on the day of charging and prove it in court beyond a reasonable doubt," she said.

Special assistant to the District Attorney and former head of the sexual assault unit Joni Leventis said a case can be "thoroughly investigated" yet lack the specific evidence necessary for prosecution to proceed.


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