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Is public safety a priority for D.A. Chesa Boudin? S.F. crime survivors say survey suggests it isn’t – San Francisco Chronicle

About 10,500 survivors of crimes committed in San Francisco over the past few years recently received an unusual survey in their email inboxes.

Sent by District Attorney Chesa Boudin, it asked a host of questions about the victims’ demographics, the crimes committed against them, which ranged in severity, and their opinions about criminal justice reform.

It was the last part that miffed some survivors. The survey asked them to rank the district attorney’s top five priorities by importance. But the options did not include prosecuting violent crimes or ensuring public safety, which many residents would rank as the top priorities of the city’s chief prosecutor.

And the reward for filling out answers about the crime committed against you?

The respondents could be entered into a raffle — if they provided an email address — to win free water bottles, tote bags “and more” with the D.A.’s logo emblazoned on them.

San Franciscans narrowly elected Boudin nearly a year ago because they liked his progressive politics and determination to end mass incarceration in favor of rehabilitation and treatment. But the survey raises questions about his commitment to listening to victims and putting violent criminals behind bars. The office needs to hit the right balance to ensure his progressive ideals are met while also keeping dangerous people off the streets.

Two survivors of sexual assault and their advocate say the survey is misguided and frustrating because they tried for years to get former District Attorney George Gascón and now Boudin to take the crime more seriously.

Tiffany Tonel of Oakland stands for a portrait on Monday, October 12, 2020 in Oakland, Calif. Tiffany Tonel, a survivor of sexual assault, is frustrated that District Attorney Chesa Boudin used her story in his campaign literature but has not made a point of prosecuting sex assault crimes in office or changing the city's rape kit process.

Tiffany Tonel, who reported being drugged and raped by a co-worker in 2016 and who uses the pronoun they, spoke at a City Hall hearing in 2018 about their frustration over a criminal justice system that doesn’t prioritize prosecuting sexual assault.

Survivors at the hearing described dismissive police officers, delays getting rape kits completed at San Francisco General Hospital, and prosecutors who sometimes wouldn’t communicate if they were charging a case — or explain why they decided against it.

Officials in a range of city departments promised to do better. And the issue became a major part of last year’s campaign to replace Gascón, who left office to run for the same position in Los Angeles.

Boudin even met with Tonel during the campaign, used their image in campaign literature about his promises to improve the prosecution of sexual assault cases, reviewed their case file and said he would appoint them to a new sexual violence task force.

But nine months after Boudin took office, Tonel doesn’t believe that much has changed. The office hasn’t formed the task force. Boudin reviewed their case but determined it couldn’t be proved in court. Then the survey arrived with a thud.

“I was like, this is dumb. I don’t want to answer your 15-minute-long survey when I’ve already voiced my concerns directly to you,” said Tonel, 30, a student at San Francisco State University. “As a survivor, sharing my story is a very vulnerable and scary thing. Seeing this survey, it just feels so impersonal.”

It also appears geared toward collecting answers that show crime victims support Boudin’s priorities at a time when many San Franciscans are concerned his office isn’t doing enough to prosecute crime. Overall, crime in the city is down from last year, but homicides are up 23%, burglary has risen 43% and auto theft is up 34%, according to police data through August.

San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin speaks to reporters before his swearing in ceremony in San Francisco, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Rachel Marshall, a spokeswoman for Boudin, said the office has prosecuted 35 out of 61 sexual assault and rape cases presented by police since Boudin took office in January, which she called a high percentage considering how difficult it is to prove those cases in court.

“We are proud of our hard work to prosecute these kinds of cases,” she said. “We have an ethical duty to prosecute only cases with sufficient evidence to convince a jury.”

In his campaign, Boudin made several promises related to sexual assault cases, including testing every rape kit. Marshall said there are currently no untested rape kits in the city.

Two days after I submitted questions for this column — including about rape kits — the office announced a new pilot program with the medical examiner’s office to give rape victims five days to have their blood and urine tested for substances such as date rape drugs rather than the previous limit of two days. Improved testing methods by the medical examiner’s office will make this possible, the D.A.’s office said.

The office also pays for Lyft rides for victims of sexual assault to go to the hospital. The task force is still planned, but has been put on hold because of the pandemic, Marshall said.

“D.A. Boudin remains committed to improving the way sexual assault cases are handled and has been actively working to protect survivors,” Marshall said.

None of that commitment comes through in the survey, though. It asks crime victims to rank these five priorities by importance: prioritizing rehabilitation over punishment, providing restorative justice options for victims of crime, increasing alternatives to prison, increasing services for victims of crime, and increasing financial resources for victims of crime.

Those might be fine ideas in some criminal cases. But for a man like Tonel’s co-worker who allegedly drugs somebody, drags them into an Uber unconscious, takes them home and rapes them? Probably not.

“There was no option to disagree or to even add a suggestion or comment to what could be included in those five very limited options,” Tonel said. “It’s disappointing and disrespectful to survivors.”

Tonel didn’t complete the survey, and it appears the vast majority of crime victims didn’t either. Marshall said the office has received 481 responses out of 10,500 surveys issued. She said the results will be compiled in a report early next year.

Marshall said the ranking of five priorities “was not suggesting that they were the only approaches a victim might favor.” She pointed out that another question asks victims whether they think incarceration is helpful in deterring criminal behavior.

But not everybody’s buying it.

Jane Manning, an advocate for sexual assault survivors, said she found the survey very concerning because it seems “calculated to use the voices of victims in support of an agenda that’s not doing anything for victims.”

“It asks victims to choose their top priority from a very pre-engineered list of options,” she said. “None of the options have to do with taking violent offenders off the streets and out of homes, which is a high priority for many crime survivors.”

Manning said the U.S. criminal justice system has two chief problems: putting too many perpetrators of nonviolent crimes in prison and not prosecuting enough violent and predatory crimes including sexual assault.

“Chesa Boudin is clearly passionate about addressing the first of those injustices, but survivors in San Francisco want to see him address the second one as well,” Manning said. “They’re looking for a dangerous predator to be stopped from harming other people.”

That’s what Amanda Hamed has been seeking since reporting a sexual assault by a relative of her landlord in July 2018. She, too, was frustrated by a lack of attention from police and prosecutors who opted not to file charges in her case because it was past the statute of limitations for reporting the crime as a misdemeanor and they didn’t find evidence of a felony.

Hamed said she waited 13 months to report the crime because she couldn’t afford to move out of her apartment, and she feared retaliation from her landlord and the assailant. A misdemeanor sexual assault must be reported within a year to be prosecuted. She believes there was evidence to prosecute the crime as a felony.

Hamed said the district attorney’s victims services division was unhelpful, giving her a few hundred dollars to help her move, but then brushing her off.

She discussed her concerns with Boudin via a Zoom meeting in June, focusing on her hope he would reform the way the office handles sexual assault cases in general rather than on her specific case, she said. They exchanged a few emails, and she asked for a follow-up meeting.

“That was the last I heard from him,” said Hamed, 42, a nonprofit worker. “Then cut to this incredibly insulting survey. Now they want me to participate in this survey about how I can make life easier for my attacker?”

The idea of restorative justice — often involving mediated discussions between victims and perpetrators to make amends — was a central theme of the survey questions. Hamed said that may work for petty thieves, but not for violent criminals.

“It was just all about how they can make life easier for the person who sexually assaulted me,” Hamed said. “And I can get a tote bag! Are you f—ing kidding me?”

She didn’t fill out the survey.

San Francisco Chronicle columnist Heather Knight appears Sundays and Tuesdays. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @hknightsf Instagram: @heatherknightsf

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