San Jose could require rideshare companies to report assaults
Santa Clara County Assistant District Attorney Terry Harman said her team found almost no sexual assaults reported to Uber found their way to law enforcement. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

    San Jose wants to require rideshare companies to report sexual assaults to law enforcement, but advocates say not so fast.

    Mayor Sam Liccardo, joined by officials of San Jose Police Department and Santa Clara County District Attorney, announced a proposal Thursday they said would help curb assaults and better support victims and survivors. The policy would mandate companies like Uber, Lyft and taxis to alert law enforcement of all sexual assault allegations. It would also require companies to share survivors’ information such as names and contacts with law enforcement. Liccardo also wants to see rideshare companies provide resources and support to victims.

    San Jose would become the first large city in the nation to impose such a policy on rideshare companies if approved. Officials anticipate the reporting mandate would bring legal challenges from Uber and Lyft.

    The proposal already has drawn swift backlash from survivor advocates across the country. Tracey Vitchers, executive director of the nation’s largest group fighting for college sexual assault prevention, It’s On Us, said she met with San Jose officials this year to voice opposition to the policy. She worries the reporting mandate to law enforcement will deter survivors, especially those who are people of color or of the LGBTQIA+ community, from reporting their assaults altogether.

    “The decision to go to law enforcement should be within the hands of the survivor, not something that is forced upon them,” Vitchers told San José Spotlight.

    Many survivors find going through a police investigation is more traumatic than the assault itself, Vitchers said. Providing personal information to the police is potentially harmful for survivors, she said.

    “Then survivors, in turn, don’t report the incidents to anyone at all,” she said.  “That will create a massive chilling effect.”

    The proposal, scheduled to go before the council’s Rules Committee next week, comes after San Jose and Santa Clara County spent months pushing Uber and Lyft to report such incidents voluntarily. After studying data on sexual assaults on rides released by Uber in 2019, District Attorney Jeff Rosen’s office said it found a troubling trend. Assistant District Attorney Terry Harman estimated 62 assaults happened in Santa Clara County between 2017 and 2018—but only one incident was reported to police.

    San Jose Police Department Deputy Chief Elle Washburn said the city is equipped to help survivors and stop assailants from committing crimes. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

    “When we had discussions with Uber, it’s fair to say overall we were really disappointed,” Harman said. “They’re not particularly clear with the victim that the investigation is only geared at whether that driver will be deactivated. That’s it.”

    Information should stay private

    Uber and Lyft have also pushed back on the policy, saying the choice to report such crimes should be made by survivors and victims.

    Uber said it has worked with survivor groups and implemented a number of safety initiatives, such as releasing background checks on drivers, safety reports and establishing a hotline to support survivors. Uber also helps survivors report their assaults to law enforcement, the company said.

    “To insinuate that Uber somehow misleads survivors or benefits financially or reputationally from our approach is categorically false,” Emilie Boman, director of global safety policy, told San José Spotlight. “We’ve offered to work with the mayor and DA to address their concerns, but they have consistently maintained their desire for Uber to automatically report survivor names, contact information and deeply personal details with police without their consent which goes against the advice of local and national victim advocates and takes away their power of choice.”

    Local organizations are also disappointed with the city’s proposal. Colsaria Henderson, executive director of San Jose-based Next Door Solutions, said a survivor’s choice must be prioritized.

    “We had hoped that the leadership would work closely with victim-service agencies to discuss this issue,” Henderson told San José Spotlight. “We stand with survivors and our county victim-service providers.”

    A spokesperson for Lyft told San José Spotlight Lyft’s policy on reporting sexual assault was developed with the help of survivor advocacy organizations.

    “We believe the decision about whether and how to report incidents of sexual assault is a deeply personal one that belongs solely in the hands of the individual who experienced it,” a Lyft spokesperson said. “We oppose any policy that would remove this agency from the survivor.”

    SJPD Deputy Chief Elle Washburn said the policy, created in collaboration with the DA’s office, will protect residents and help law enforcement stop predators from committing other crimes. Officials also noted the policy is not aiming to further traumatize victims or violate their privacy.

    “We place a tremendous emphasis on safeguarding survivors and responding with a trauma informed care approach,” Washburn said, adding SJPD sexual assault investigation is the largest investigative unit in the department. “We want them to understand the judicial process and to have available resources for both short and long term care.”

    But Melissa Luke, chief program officer of YWCA Golden Gate Silicon Valley, said the proposed policy will create more barriers for survivors seeking support. The organization is a city partner in sexual assault prevention and support.

    “The stance of the sexual assault providers and the advocacy agencies here in Santa Clara County are all in alignment,” Luke told San José Spotlight. “Ultimately, it’s about giving survivors the choice, and the current (proposed) ordinance does not do that.”

    Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter. 

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