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Politics & Policy

San Francisco created an agency to fight sexual crimes. It’s never met with police

A person speaking at city hall infront of a microphone to the board of supervisors.
Sheryl Davis, head of the Human Rights Commission, which oversees the Office of Sexual Harassment and Assault Response and Prevention (SHARP), apologized for “shortcomings” during a hearing Thursday at City Hall. | Source: Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

Anyone in San Francisco who was worried that Thursday’s sexual violence hearing at City Hall would turn overtly political can rest easy. 

Supervisors, law enforcement and leaders of the Office of Sexual Harassment and Assault Response and Prevention (SHARP)—an agency that seems to have failed in its mission after six years—eschewed partisan digs and hard questions about dysfunction to instead spend the bulk of the two-hour public safety meeting thanking one another for their commitment to do better.

Following The Standard’s report on disturbing allegations of sexual violence and abuse against once-rising political star Jon Jacobo—as well as survivors’ concerns that law enforcement and powerful allies had failed to hold him accountable—Supervisor Hillary Ronen called for the hearing to get a status update on SHARP, an agency she created after a hearing on sexual assault in 2018.

Ronen noted Thursday that SHARP was formed because many sexual assault survivors had expressed “very unfriendly” interactions with city departments, including police and prosecutors. 

Hillary Ronen in a blazer listens as people talk in a room with an American flag in the background.
Supervisor Hillary Ronen called for Thursday's hearing six years after she held a public meeting that led to the creation of the Office of Sexual Harassment and Assault Response and Prevention (SHARP). | Source: Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

SHARP was designed to help sexual assault victims navigate the path to justice, from acting as a liaison for services to working with departments when they are deemed to be unhelpful or violating rules. But since that time, SHARP officials reported receiving just 67 direct complaints and initiating 33 investigations, most of which involved simply connecting people to services outside of City Hall. 

Rather than coordinate with police, prosecutors, hospital staff and department heads to facilitate a smoother experience for victims, SHARP seems to have barely met with other city agencies in the last six years. The San Francisco Chronicle first reported issues around the agency earlier this week.

Officials noted that SHARP developed training with the Office of Transgender Initiatives, and of the four examples they provided Thursday regarding coordination with other departments, this work seemed to be the most appreciated by the community members who spoke at the hearing.

Sheryl Davis, the head of the city’s Human Rights Commission, which oversees SHARP, broke down in tears as she acknowledged “shortcomings” on behalf of her two-person team, who received a combined $365,000 in salary and benefits in 2022, according to Transparent California.

“We all want to do better,” Davis said. “We are apologetic and [have regrets], but we are also committed to doing better.”

Alexa O'Brien, captain of the San Francisco Police Department’s Special Victims Unit, said she was unsure if police had ever had a phone call with SHARP officials but she was certain no meetings had ever taken place in the agency’s six-year existence. 

An audience of women listen—one holds her hands over her mouth—as a police captain speaks at a podium about sexual assault.
Audience members react as Alexa O’Brien, a captain for the San Francisco Police Department's Special Victims Unit, talks about sexual assault cases in the city. | Source: Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

In the police presentation, O’Brien noted that 81% of women and 43% of men in San Francisco have reported experiencing sexual assault and/or harassment. She noted that the Special Victims Unit has 32 investigators—a drop from previous years—and deals with a variety of crimes on top of rape and sexual assault. 

The number of sexual assault cases in San Francisco was above 1,000 in each of the last two years, but less than 10% of these cases led to an arrest, according to the police department. Stats provided by Monifa Willis, chief of staff in the District Attorney's Office, showed that prosecutors filed charges for 79% of sex offense cases last year, which was a noticeably higher rate than that of DA Brooke Jenkins’ predecessor, Chesa Boudin.

Ronen said that an “extremely small number” of sexual assault cases are being resolved and asked O’Brien if the police have any public information campaigns “aside from Denim Day, which I think is great.” O’Brien’s presentation included a slide featuring two group pictures of cops wearing denim to raise awareness about sexual assault.

“We don’t,” O’Brien said, before adding that schools could do more to address “deviant” behavior with students before they become adults. 

O’Brien said that she and police spokesperson Evan Sernoffsky have been “campaigning” to fight back against a media narrative that police are not supportive of victims.

Supervisor Myrna Melgar added that she also has been “frustrated” with press coverage by mostly male reporters, saying that it was not prioritizing the victims.

Myrna Melgar cast a serious expression while she sits in front of a laptop and listens intently.
Supervisor Myrna Melgar, left, focused more of her ire on the media’s reporting of sexual assault allegations than on SHARP officials, who didn’t meet with police a single time in six years to discuss helping victims. | Source: Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

Melgar then went on to champion the work of former Supervisor Jane Kim—a former boss of Jacobo who also brought him to a political event just weeks after he was publicly accused of rape in 2021—by pointing out that Kim attempted to create a group focused on sexual assaults, though it never got off the ground.

A half-dozen members of the public championed the work of SHARP during the public comment portion of the meeting, saying that its outreach to the transgender community was particularly needed.

Luis Gutierrez-Mock, a director at UCSF hospitals, attempted to humanize the issue of sexual assault in public comments. He took issue with the police presentation calling people “deviants,” before turning the focus back on supervisors who were once political allies of Jacobo.

“The people who commit sexual assault are our community members,” Gutierrez-Mock said. “We had prior history and knowledge of Jon Jacobo, and he was mentored by many of the sitting supervisors here. And what was done to hold him accountable?”

Supervisor Catherine Stefani, who serves as chair of the Public Safety Committee, said the results of Thursday’s hearing show that “we have to have systems in place that protect [victims] and help them through probably one of the worst times in their lives. And we’re not doing it.”

Ronen ended the hearing by saying she will be introducing legislation to transfer oversight of SHARP to the soon-to-be-created Office of Victim and Witness Rights.