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Why does the Santa Ana Police Dept. tell dispatchers to give some sexual assault reports the same urgency as calls complaining about vandalism? 

That was the question Councilmember Jessie Lopez put to Police Chief David Valentin at a city budget hearing earlier this month, as Valentin stood before council members to answer questions about his department’s proposed spending of taxpayer dollars. 

She raised those concerns after reviewing months worth of data, made available for public download by the police department, on calls for service through its Computer-Aided-Dispatch (CAD) system, which also gives guidance to dispatchers on what types of calls are most urgent. 

The system gives certain calls a 1-5 priority level — a 1 demanding top priority and a 5 demanding the least, according to the city. A spreadsheet of that data, reviewed by Voice of OC, indeed shows that reports about some sexual assaults and rape fall on priority 3.

That priority level does include other serious incidents as well, such as a possible drunk driver and suspicious activity.

Yet, within that system, someone coming forward with a sexual assault report could also fall on the same priority level as calls about someone being drunk in public, illegal soliciting, lost and found property, and graffiti.  

The department received 54 reports about possible rape between November last year and May of this year, according to the data available in early June. 

Chief Valentin, speaking with Voice of OC during a June 10 interview, said it depends on what kind of call or report comes in — as well as how much information is provided and when. 

If dispatchers receive a 9-1-1 emergency call about a sexual assault that just occurred or is in progress, he said  “that’s going to be the highest priority response call for an officer, — lights and sirens — getting there as quickly as possible to stop the continued attack.”

But there are other types of calls, Valentin said, about sexual assaults that may have happened some time ago and not much information about the location or suspect is known. 

“For example, you could have a sexual assault, rape allegation — whatever the circumstances that occurred years ago — with either unknown suspect information, or little to no follow up information available,” he said. “So, that is going to be handled as an investigatory response and documented in a report.”

Thus, Valentin argued, those cases may not justify an immediate response by dispatchers and officers who field many different types of calls for help daily.

It often takes time for a survivor to work through their trauma before they’re comfortable coming forward and seeking justice, leading to delays between the time of the incident and the time it’s reported, said Laura Palumbo of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

Experts have said survivors can also omit or forget details due to trauma or fear of retaliation — leading to fragmented accounts. 

“For many, it’s a natural response to trauma that it may take them a significant amount of time to come forward,” Palumbo said in a June 10 interview. “It may take time for them to disclose it first to family, friends and loved ones, until they become comfortable with the idea of making a report.”

It’s an example of how society can put the onus on survivors, Palumbo said.

She added there’s a need for law enforcement agencies to rethink their approach and create systems that are built “around the fact that many survivors don’t immediately come forward” and can even accommodate anonymity requests.

The department already partners with a number of social services groups that happen to have expertise in these types of issues, hosting more than a dozen nonprofits in what’s known as the “Family Justice Center.”

The center is a partnership between the department and 17 nonprofit organizations where survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, child abuse, human trafficking and elder abuse can receive assistance and support. 

Valentin and city officials have long touted it as the only such center in the U.S. that’s “co-located” inside a police department headquarters.

Dispatchers at the Santa Ana Police Department, servicing one of California’s busiest and densest metropolitan areas, have tough calls to make when fielding so many calls for help, Valentin said. 

For years, officials throughout the 2010s pointed to staffing and resource limitations when questioned over delayed 9-1-1 response times. 

Toward the end of the last decade and the beginning of this one, however, the department has hired more officers and has even found taxpayer money to fund salary raises. Valentin even pointed to improved 9-1-1 response times during the June 3 budget hearing.

Valentin noted the department is currently taking another look at its dispatcher policies through an official study: 

“Going back some time now, we’ve looked at, and continue to assess and analyze, what are our five priority levels? And are there any adjustments that need to be made to that response protocol?” 

He said the study is in progress, “and I suspect that will be concluded here in the next couple of months. And I already do have some pretty good input and feedback on some minor adjustments to that response protocol.”

The police department’s current priority dispatch rankings troubled Lopez on June 3, during the city’s first budget hearing.

“I want you to hear, that is unacceptable,” she told Valentin during the budget hearing. “Rape, sexual crimes … there is no comparison when someone experiences that.”

Valentin responded to her concerns that night by saying “clearly rape, any sexual assault, any crime against a person, is a significant incident that affects someone.”

“But again, not knowing all of the context, and the circumstances as to why, for example, in this hypothetical, that case incident was classified as a priority 3, there has to be additional information to justify that,” he said.

Asked by Voice of OC whether his department is currently rethinking how it responds to sexual assaults, Valentin said “my position is any crime against a person will always take priority over a property crime.”

He added that dispatchers also have the discretion to make their own calls on whether a report should take a higher priority level than what the guidance provides: 

“They have the ability to, based on the information that they obtained, to either increase or elevate the response level or decrease it, based on the information that they received.”

He said dispatchers can also consult with the on-duty station supervisor or watch commander, “and they’re encouraged, they’re empowered to do that.”

“I agree with the notion that any crime against a person is traumatic. Our detectives, and our officers are trained on trauma and trauma-informed care. And that’s our approach,” he added.

There is often a sense of “he said/she said” that prevents law enforcement agencies across the U.S. from feeling a strong sense of urgency or importance around sexual assault cases, according to Palumbo.

She added “most of the time what survivors hear is how difficult it is to make a case against the perpetrator or how unlikely it is that a case may be prosecuted.”

The main concern Palumbo said her group hears from survivors is that, whether or not there is a valid process for a survivor’s case, “often the experience is that their case isn’t taken seriously or is minimized.” 

“I understand graffiti is an issue,” Lopez said on June 3. “But sex crimes need to be a higher priority for our department.”

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC staff writer and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord

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