County can improve handling of sexual assaults

05/10/2018

Though the number of rapes in Marin County is lower than in all other Bay Area counties, local law enforcement agencies could improve their handling of sexual assault cases, according to a recent civil grand jury investigation. Sparked by recent national news coverage, the report found that Marin’s protocol for evidence collection and processing is largely up to par, but it made a number of recommendations. These include altering the funding structure for the county’s forensic examination team based in Vallejo, streamlining law enforcement agencies’ communication with victims and, importantly, addressing unprocessed DNA evidence.

An average of 46 rapes are reported each year in Marin. By comparison, 188 rapes are reported on average in neighboring Sonoma County, which has the highest rate across any Bay Area county. At a slightly lower rate given its larger population, Alameda County has the highest number of reported rapes, at nearly 500 a year.

What happens when someone reports a sexual assault in Marin? 

Generally, a victim makes an initial report to local law enforcement or to a health care provider in an emergency room. In Marin, like in all California counties, a Sexual Assault Response Team, or SART, which includes a police officer, trained victim-advocate and sexual assault nurse examiner, then goes into action to support the victim and gather evidence to prosecute a possible crime. 

The team encourages a forensic examination, or “rape kit,” whether or not the victim intends to press charges. In Marin, between 2011 and 2016, approximately 63 percent of rape victims—or an average of 29 per year—received an exam. 

Previously, obstetrical nurses offered exams at Marin General Hospital, but some of these nurses did not want to be subpoenaed, sent to court and have their credentials examined. And since the number of cases in Marin is relatively low, maintaining a local program was difficult, according to the jury’s report. 

Since 2011, the Marin SART has held a contract with the Kaiser Permanente Vallejo Medical Center to provide forensic exams. (Last year, the cost of the annual contract jumped from $45,000 to $65,000). At no charge to the patients, Kaiser Vallejo also provides a consultation with a sexual assault nurse examiner, laboratory testing for pregnancy and S.T.D.s, and for postcoital contraception when needed. 

Based on the county’s contract, Marin law enforcement officers provide transportation to Vallejo. The executive director of Community Violence Solutions, Cynthia Peterson, previously told the Light that the distance does not deter patients. “It is harder for the victims, but we haven’t had anyone say they wouldn’t go to Vallejo for the services yet,” she said.

The jury recommended renewing the contract for use of the Vallejo medical center, which expires in July. Yet the jury’s report also encourages the county to look at other funding arrangements. “Currently, the overhead of 24/7 on-call coverage is funded by the fee for the examinations. In periods of low activity, this is a strain on the contract company resources,” it states. 

The jury’s foreman, Ron Brown, said that the staff in Vallejo had presented some alternatives in collaboration with Marin SART, though he would not elaborate on them.  

The jury found variation among Marin’s law enforcement agencies as to how victims are updated on the status of their sexual assault evidence kits. Each agency should have a standardized, publicly available policy for updating victims on the status of their rape kit processing and results, the jury recommended.  

The 19-member group agency also suggested that these agencies adopt a “DNA bill of rights card” that would include a sexual assault victim’s rights under state law, a protocol the San Francisco Police Department first developed. Victims’ rights include that they should be alerted in a timely way about whether a DNA profile of the assailant was obtained from the testing of the rape kit evidence and entered into the Justice Department’s database. 

Most importantly, the jury drew attention to the fact that many rape kits go unprocessed nationwide. U.S.A. Today found more than 70,000 untested rape kits, based on records from more than 1,000 police departments around the country.

Mr. Brown explained that the current jury formed last July, at a time when “there was enormous amounts of coverage in the press about unprocessed rape kits—that’s what really triggered this [investigation].” 

The jury found that only a small number of kits dated prior to 2011 remain untested in some Marin police agencies’ storage.  It recommended that each agency determine the number of rape kits in their evidence lockers and send them to the California Justice Department’s crime laboratory for processing.

Since 2011, the state crime laboratory has eliminated its backlog based on changes in procedure and the advent of a new testing protocol.

The jury explained that kits can go untested for a number of reasons. These include that the perpetrator is a known assailant, that it was already determined that no crime was committed, that the suspect confessed, that the case was dropped, that the victim died, that the perpetrator died or that the complaint was withdrawn.  

But the jury emphasized the importance of processing the evidence even in these instances. Analysis might help identify serial rapists, link offenders to other crimes or reopen closed cases.

“Any kits that have not been DNA tested should be sent to the crime lab for processing, regardless of age, statute of limitations or perceived prosecutorial value,” the report implores.  

The jury has requested responses to the report from the county, as well as all Marin cities and towns, the district attorney, the sheriff’s office and all police departments by the end of July.