KQED Radio Interview: Public Press Domestic Violence Report

Editors’ note: This report aired on KQED News on Sept. 26, 2012.

KQED’s STEPHANIE MARTIN: A new investigative reporting series is questioning San Francisco’s record in tracking and prosecuting domestic violence cases.

The investigation by KQED News Associate S.F. Public Press found the District Attorney’s Office prosecutes fewer domestic violence cases per capita than any county in the Bay Area.

The report also found that police are unsure of the accuracy of at least eight years worth of investigative records.

S.F. Public Press Editor Michael Stoll is heading up the project. First, what prompted you to launch this investigation?

MICHAEL STOLL: Earlier this year, domestic violence broke into the consciousness of most San Franciscans in a very big way when Sherriff Ross Mirkarimi was brought up on charges of domestic violence himself. That’s not the story that we wanted to report. We were really interested in the public conversation that came out of this incident — within governments, within nonprofits and within the civic sector. There are thousands and thousands of women and men who are reporting incidences of domestic violence across the city every year. Something like 29,000 in the last year, where data is available.

The city is offering more and more services. More people are seeking help, and we wanted to know how these people actually were being helped and whether or not the criminal justice system was responding appropriately.

MARTIN: It’s no secret that even in this tech-savvy city, the San Francisco Police Department continues to play catch-up when it comes to technology. Listeners may recall that it took until 2011 to get everyone in the department on e-mail. Describe the experience of going through the department’s domestic violence records before last year, when the department installed a new crime database?

STOLL: Within the special victims unit there’s a team of investigators who look just at domestic violence cases. Investigators work very hard to investigate cases of domestic violence, and take detailed notes, and gather lots of good evidence and provide it to the District Attorney’s office. Unfortunately, in the past eight years there has been a gap in actually reporting what the investigators are doing. The record-keeping was basically kept on loose sheets of paper with tic marks by investigators who were doing this as a side activity, and summing them up, and reporting these as official statistics.

MARTIN: With the new crime database that’s now in place, is the department better-equipped to keep track of domestic violence trends?

STOLL: They say they are. It remains to be seen whether the system which is very good at creating basically a digital filing cabinet where details from individual cases can be looked up very quickly — it’s really up to the department and to administrators there to make a point to create a more consistent system that can be tracked over time.

MARTIN: When it comes to domestic violence prosecutions, San Francisco has what’s called a no-drop policy, which means that even when a victim decides to drop charges — if there’s enough evidence to convict — prosecutors are required to press charges. But your reporting found that despite this, San Francisco is trailing the rest of the Bay Area when it comes to domestic violence prosecutions. What’s going on?

STOLL: The District Attorney’s office has a very high standard for prosecution. They say they’ll only pursue cases in court where they have enough evidence to convict beyond a reasonable doubt. So, a lot of cases are what are called “declined.” They just don’t pursue the charges. Others are referred to parole or probation. Others are plead-out. But San Francisco has the lowest rate of bringing cases to court per capita in the Bay Area. It’s 28 per 10,000 residents, where the average is more like 50 or 60. And, as a percentage of cases brought to district attorney’s offices, it’s the second-lowest after Contra Costa County.

MARTIN: Michael Stoll, thank you.

STOLL: Thank you.

MARTIN: Michael Stoll is editor at KQED News Associate S.F. Public Press.

For more, see the special report on domestic violence in the Fall 2012 print edition of the San Francisco Public Press.