'Everybody stay in their lane': The South Bay debate over how Uber should report sexual assaults

Amanda del Castillo Image
Tuesday, October 4, 2022
Debate underway in South Bay over how to best keep Uber riders safe
The Santa Clara County DA and San Jose Mayor are pushing for all rideshare companies to report sexual assault allegations to police.

SANTA CLARA COUNTY, Calif. (KGO) -- A battle is underway over how to best keep Uber riders safe, specifically when reporting allegations of sexual assault.

Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen and San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo spoke with ABC7 News about the push for all rideshare companies to report sexual assault allegations to police.

Since February, their offices have been in talks with Uber and victim advocacy groups, putting a spotlight on public safety and the privacy of sex assault survivors.

"No one is saying that victims should be required to report anything to the police," Mayor Liccardo said. "But merely, if Lyft and Uber are told that there's a sexual assault, the police should know."

Uber told ABC7 News in-part, "We are clear with survivors that it is their choice to make - and if they do make that choice, we have teams standing by to support both them and law enforcement."

The statement added, "Our position wasn't created in a vacuum. It was guided by the foremost experts on this issue and by survivors themselves, all of whom have consistently told us that assuming someone wants the police involved, or pressuring them to do so, risks retraumatizing them."

The company connected ABC7 News with Sandra Henriquez, CEO of VALOR US. It's an advocacy group for ending sexual violence.

"Part of a survivor's healing is the ability to take power, control, decision making, into their own lives," Henriquez said. "And for that to be respected."

DA Rosen said this as an effort to help victims and hold perpetrators accountable.

His office estimates 62 assaults of platform users had occurred in the county during a two-year stretch. He said only one incident was reported to police.

RELATED: Uber rolls out text-to-911 safety feature on rideshare app for users across US

When riders use the text-to-911 feature in the app, it will generate a prewritten message including information about the trip, such as the vehicle information and location.

"When we got records from Uber, it turned out there were prior complaints of a sexually harassing nature involving this particular driver who continued to drive for Uber," DA Rosen added about the case. "So what I would say to victims is please call the police."

Uber claims it has led the industry in making significant changes, "to processes and policies based on feedback and guidance from experts in gender-based violence prevention like RAINN, law enforcement, and survivors themselves."

Some of these actions include releasing safety reports, and setting up a Survivor Support Hotline and a Public Safety Response portal.

"Since February, we have met with the Santa Clara County DA's office and the San Jose Mayor three times; they've made it clear they wish to pilot a program that would see Uber automatically share information with police regardless of a survivor's consent. We've explained our position and outside experts have shared their perspective," a statement from Emilie Boman, Uber's Director of Global Safety Policy read.

Henriquez questioned, "I know that there are many cases that are likely sitting in the DA's office in Santa Clara County that have not been charged. Those cases are from survivors who have indicated that they would like to prosecute and go be a part of that system - the criminal legal system. So, I would ask question of how many of those cases are sitting there and have not been charged?"

"We don't know how many sexual assaults have been unreported on these platforms, on Lyft and Uber, but what we seem to know is that the overwhelming majority of the sexual assaults never make their way to the local police," Mayor Liccardo said. "And that is a grave concern to me as a mayor. It's a grave concern to me as a former prosecutor of sexual assaults. And it's a grave concern to me as a husband and as a member of this community."

He said it is understood, the importance of protecting the agency and the privacy of survivors.

"But it's important for us to balance those concerns with the public safety. And it seems to me that we can do both," he continued.

DA Rosen said it is clear people are already making reports. Now the police should be notified too.

"I'm not an expert in transportation, and Uber and Lyft are not experts in sexual assault investigation," he said. "I am... And so just everybody stay in their lane."

RELATED: Lawsuit with 550 plaintiffs claims Uber failed to protect female riders from sexual assault

More than 500 women are suing Uber over claims they were sexually assaulted by their drivers.

Rosen explained sexual assaults are incredibly underreported across the country.

"The victim in this case may very well believe that the ride-sharing company is going to contact the police, and the perpetrator is going to be held criminally accountable. What they don't know is none of that is going to happen," Rosen told ABC7 News.

However, victim advocate Henriquez disagrees about any such expectation.

"Our experience has been that when survivors want to report, they make a report," she said. "They are not expecting or desiring for somebody outside of the person or entity that they reported to to do that on their behalf."

Meantime, South Bay leaders want to see state or local legislation applied to all ridesharing apps, not just Uber.

"We're talking to colleagues now about proposing something this week," Mayor Liccardo said.

He hopes any city ordinance would include requirements for ridesharing companies and resources for victims.

"So survivors have all the information when they decide what they want to do after a horrible situation like this," Mayor Liccardo said.

"I know that it's coming from a place of good intent, right? People mean to do well," Henriquez told ABC7 News. "But I think it's really important that they listen to advocates and survivors about what they want, because sometimes we try to do something... but instead of helping, it's harmful and hurts the very people that we want to protect."

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