As statistics go from tick marks to laptops, police struggle to make sense of trends
The San Francisco Police Department cannot precisely measure the number of domestic violence cases it handled before 2011, because investigators in the Special Victims Unit hand-tallied monthly records, and used changing and inconsistently understood categories of crimes. This story appeared as part of a special report on domestic violence in the Fall 2012 print edition of the San Francisco Public Press.
Tay Wiles, San Francisco Public Press — Apr 29 2013 - 11:04am
Some cases were not referred immediately to Special Victims Unit
This story appeared in the Spring print edition of the San Francisco Public Press.
Nine months after the San Francisco Police Department fully implemented a new digitized case management system, inspectors were still finding as many as 20 domestic violence cases per month that were not immediately referred to the Special Victims Unit for investigation, said a lieutenant in charge of the domestic violence team.
Across California, local agencies have been left to scramble for limited resources and improvise strategies to fight human trafficking, a problem whose scope has yet to be defined with reliable numbers. A high-profile state task force studying California’s human trafficking problem made 46 recommendations in October 2007 but set up no mechanism to monitor progress. Attorney General Kamala Harris has begun picking up the pieces this year. But without clear guidance from the state, nine regional task forces sprung up to devise their own solutions. Their efforts have been supported mostly by federal grants. But as the funding rules become more stringent, the groups at times have been pitted against each other for resources.
The arrest last week of a suspect in a violent San Francisco kidnapping capped a monthlong investigation headed by human trafficking and domestic violence officers from the Police Department’s revamped special victims unit. The case, police officials said, is one of the first fruits of a new collaborative approach emphasizing long-term investigations by officers across disciplines. The pursuit involved human trafficking investigators, who as recently as last summer were instead focusing much of their energy on arresting prostitutes on the street, leading some critics to say their efforts were counterproductive because they punished abuse victims.
Special victims unit to take a new victim-centered approach to human rights violations
The little-noticed use of San Francisco’s human trafficking task force to arrest street prostitutes over the summer underscores a sharp nationwide debate on how local law enforcement can help rescue victims of economic and sexual slavery. Until October, the city’s anti-trafficking team operated out of the San Francisco Police Department’s vice crimes unit. With the help of a federal-state grant, the team racked up more than 15 investigations of suspected traffickers. But in the spring it altered its tactics, making large-scale arrests of dozens of prostitutes in the Polk Gulch neighborhood, in response to complaints from neighbors.
The reorganization of the San Francisco Police Department’s Special Victims Unit has become an issue in the November vote for district attorney — at least for one contender in the race: Sharmin Bock, an Alameda County prosecutor. But in doing so, she clashed with police officials who said they need to rely more on federal investigators’ expertise. She said she has placed most of her emphasis on sex tafficking, but has little experience with labor trafficking.
The need to focus investigations on cases of suspected human trafficking was one of the key reasons for the reorganization of the San Francisco Police Department’s Special Victims Unit starting this week, the captain in charge of the new office said. The move places three full-time human trafficking investigators, including the police department’s acknowledged expert, in the same office space as more than 40 colleagues working in disparate areas such as sex crimes, domestic violence and financial crimes. Until now, no investigator worked full time on trafficking cases. The change will accompany increased coordination with federal law enforcement officials this week.
San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr is consolidating four sections of the Special Victims Unit scattered in offices throughout the city and combining them with human trafficking investigations, which were previously handled by the Vice Crimes Unit. The newly constituted Special Victims Unit will open for business Monday, Oct. 17, in a new office on the fifth floor of the Hall of Justice at 850 Bryant St.