San Jose police expect rise in sexual assault reports as shelter in place lifts
San Jose police reports an increase in certain crimes during shelter in place. Photo by Nicholas Chan.

As Santa Clara County moves into the less restrictive orange tier, San Jose police are bracing for an alarming uptick in reports of sexual violence.

Police suspect many cases of sexual violence that took place in 2020 behind closed doors have gone unreported due to shelter in place orders.

“When the COVID-19 pandemic began, there was a legitimate concern that the local shelter in place orders could negatively impact our community and cause an increase of sexual assault crimes,” said Angelie Montesa, a SJPD crime and intelligence analyst for the Sexual Assaults Unit.

Montesa presented data at a recent public safety meeting that showed sexual assault cases, including child molestation, rape and indecent exposure, actually decreased in 2020. A recent report noted an 18.5% decrease in cases from the fiscal year 2019 to 2020. While a drop sounds positive, Montesa said the truth might be bleak.

“That 18.5 decrease from 2019 to 2020 most likely is due to the onset of COVID-19 in 2020, resulting in under-reporting and not necessarily an indication of a decrease of sexual assault incidences,” Montesa said.

Despite the dip in 2020, officers noted a steady 5.5% increase in sexual violence since 2016. Between 2020 and 2016, there were 8,487 reported rapes and sex offenses in San Jose.

“Whenever you see those numbers, whether it’s one victim or 100, it’s difficult,” Vice Mayor Chappie Jones told San José Spotlight. “To see those numbers and know that people there are being assaulted and experiencing violence in their own home, it’s tragic.”

Vulnerable children 

Sexual assault cases are historically delayed in reporting, Montesa said. But COVID-19 likely further delayed reporting, especially in cases involving minors. With schools closed, many minors are cut off from mandated reporters — teachers, medical personnel and police officers — who can help report and put an end to abuse.

This may change as many school districts, including San Jose Unified, reopen next month.

More than half of 2020 sex crimes occurred in the victim’s home. With the onslaught of COVID-19, both adults and children are possibly being forced to stay at home with their abuser.

Victims were most often attacked by another family member, according to SJPD data. The next largest group of victims were attacked by a parent. Internet crimes against children also grew in 2020.

Chart courtesy of a recent SJPD report.

There was a 50% increase in the online enticement of children and 86% increase in possession of child sexual abuse material from 2019, reports show.

“With our youth at home, online opportunities for sexual predators to make contact with our children have grown,” Montesa said.

From 2019 to 2020, cyber tip reports increased by 107%. SJPD recorded a record-breaking number of cyber tips in April and May 2020 — at the start of the pandemic. There were more than 1051 tips in April and 679 tips in May, compared to 257 and 151 cases in 2019.

Equity in services 

Montesa’s presentation followed months of advocacy by San Jose lawmakers, who were stunned to learn rape reports nearly tripled in San Jose from 220 reports in 2008 to 615 reports in 2018.

In 2019, all five female members of the San Jose City Council — Magdalena Carrasco, Sylvia Arenas, Dev Davis, Maya Esparza and Pam Foley — called on lawmakers to study the rise in sexual assault, including which groups are most vulnerable.

Montesa said the top three ethnicities for adult survivors of sexual assault are Latino, Caucasian and African American. Adult Asian survivors comprise only 13.5% of survivors, which Montesa said emphasizes the need to look into underreporting in the Asian community.

Photo courtesy of SJPD.

Rosalyn Klein, client advocacy manager for Asian Women’s Home, said requests for hotels and restraining orders have doubled since the pandemic began.

“More survivors than ever are seeking our hotline for support for their mental health and housing needs,” Klein said. “Our diverse communities face too many barriers to seeking help.”

Five percent of local domestic violence felonies involve Asians, but 55% of AAPI women report experiencing sexual violence in the U.S,

“We often see the communication gap between law enforcement and our communities, especially communities of color, immigrants and limited English speaking families,” Klein said. “The system’s response to gender-based violence has become even more critical during COVID when survivors are trapped in their home with the person who is harming them.”

Arenas praised a new SJPD tool, implemented in January, that asks survivors of domestic violence about previously experienced sexual assaults and documents unreported cases. In 2020, domestic rapes cases increased from 15 cases to 36 cases in the last year. Police officials say this increase is most likely due to the implementation of the new tool.

“The (SJPD report) demonstrates that we are moving in the right direction to honor and support a survivor-centered approach,” Arenas said.

Contact Carly Wipf at [email protected] or follow @CarlyChristineW on Twitter.

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