By Nicole Dial
City News Reporter
Somewhere in the United States, a woman is raped every two minutes, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Though sexual assault, and specifically rape, has been on the decline in the past decade, there is still a high amount of rape nationwide — including in Santa Cruz. From 2003 to 2007, Santa Cruz has had 224 reported rapes, according to the Uniform Crime report. The city was ranked the fourth highest out of 448 California cities for rates of reported rape in 2006.
Gillian Greensite, director of the UC Santa Cruz Rape Prevention Center, understands the challenge that Santa Cruz faces as a disconnect between the town’s reputation and its reality.
“There is an illusion that Santa Cruz is a laid-back, low-crime city, but that’s not true when we’re talking about rape,” Greensite said.
“Sexual assault” is a broad category that the Justice Department uses to classify rape, attempted rape, and other violent felonies. Rape is defined as forced vaginal, oral or anal penetration.
In an effort to combat the number of rapes in the city, the Santa Cruz City Council founded the Commission for the Prevention of Violence Against Women (CPVAW) in 1981.
The commission, made up of seven commissioners appointed by the city council and who collaborate with the Santa Cruz Police Department (SCPD), gathers information for reports and creates citywide programs to educate the public.
In the past, members of CPVAW have produced reports to present to the city council. Currently they are in the process of gathering data for a future report that will document several years’ worth of information.
Kathy Agnone, coordinator of CPVAW, hopes that the data will help to fight the city’s high level of rape and sexual assault.
“There is a commitment to provide meaningful data that can both prevent sexual assault and inform perpetrators that we won’t stand for it, and to get more women to report the assaults,” Agnone said.
Surrounded by piles of reports and paperwork in her downtown office, Agnone stressed that though the numbers are helpful in combating sexual assault in Santa Cruz, they are not necessarily reflective of the reality of the situation. Because of the stigmatized nature of the crime, it is assumed that many rapes are never reported. In fact, the FBI estimates that only 37 percent of all rapes are reported to the police. The U.S. Justice Department maintains even lower statistics, claiming that only 26 percent of all rapes or attempted rapes are reported to law enforcement officials.
Despite statistical ambiguities, the CPVAW has been a valuable resource to the community, due to the information that it collects and the programs it puts into place, said Santa Cruz mayor Ryan Coonerty.
“It is pretty unique among cities to have a [commission] like this,” Coonerty said.
The CPVAW has introduced a number of programs into the city recently as well in past years.
The Safe Place Network is a collective of businesses downtown whose employees are trained by CPVAW to assist anyone who feels threatened in the downtown area. A check-in every three months gives employees a chance to have additional training.
The Coaster Program, launched in 2005, distributed coasters with a slogan against rape on one side and the penal code on the other side. The coasters were used in bars and restaurants to raise awareness in the hope of reducing attacks in such places: the very places SCPD spokesperson Zach Friend calls a main problem area.
“Many cases originate in bars and over half are alcohol-related,” Friend said.
Along with other programs throughout the city, there are also ongoing self-defense classes for women from as young as 8 years old to 60 and older.
To Agnone, the self-defense classes make a huge difference.
“Self-defense provides tools and opportunities in every class,” Agnone said. “It’s all about making choices and having as many as you can. The value of self-defense is we can lead our lives in a safer way. Though victims should never be blamed, it’s always the perpetrator’s behavior that is at fault.”
Agnone said that self-defense classes teach the students how to avoid being an “easy target,” a term which was defined in the findings of the Mug Ability Report.
The report was a short video of 1,000 women of every age, ethnicity and dress that was shown to men convicted of sexual assault. There were three things that the men said that they would look for in an “easy target”: the women who were shuffling, had their arms close to their body, or had their eyes downcast.
Although people can learn the skills to protect themselves, rape is a problem that needs to be solved at the core of the issue. This means preventing anyone from becoming a perpetrator in the first place.
Greensite believes that education will do more than self-defense to counteract sexual assault in Santa Cruz.
“Self-defense is an important skill that women can learn to lower the risk of being raped, but educating men and boys is even more important,” Greensite said.
To educate the public, CPVAW has conducted programs in the Santa Cruz City school district to talk with students about sexual assault and provide preventative measures.
According to Jane Bogart, a current commissioner, the programs in the schools were a success and CPVAW hopes to be able to continue the same programs in the future.
Other programs such as Take Back the Night and Denim Day have been aimed not only at the city, but the university campus as well.
According to the Department of Justice, rape is the most common violent crime on American campuses today. They also report that the most common type of rape is acquaintance rape, as opposed to stranger rape.
“All major research from the past 20 years documents that one out of four college students are raped or experience an attempted rape while in college,” Greensite said.
For many, this information is nothing new. Some such people, like Bogart, want to see more change happen now to counteract these sad facts. Though Bogart does say that there has been some slow and steady progress made.
“Violence against women has been perpetrated throughout history,” Bogart said. “In the 1980s, [acquaintance rape] was labeled and named. It happened before that but no one ever talked about it.”
Though the crime has not changed, the methods of dealing with it have.
When there is a report of sexual assault in Santa Cruz, the police are dispatched to investigate the crime and escort the victim to the hospital for a forensic exam if they wish to pursue the matter. There is a specialized team of nurse examiners who look for any signs of struggle or any DNA evidence.
In cases where the victim reports much later or the victim does not want an exam, there is no evidence that can be collected to use in the case against the perpetrator.
Friend believes that the process in Santa Cruz is especially sensitive to the victims.
“We are the only agency with a victim advocate who sticks with them during the process,” Friend said. “There is also countywide counseling.”
In spite of these features of the department, there have been serious criticisms of the SCPD in its investigations of rape cases. Greensite has publicly spoken out against the SCPD’s investigations during and after the time she worked for CPVAW in 1981 and 2002.
“The 2006 Joint City Committee on Rape documented serious shortcomings in rape investigations by the Santa Cruz Police Department,” Greensite said. “After reading three years of police reports of rape, I could see that a lot more could be done with follow-up investigation in the vast majority of the reports.”
In cities of comparable size to Santa Cruz, the national average of clearance rates, or number of arrests, is 37 percent. Santa Cruz has a clearance rate of a mere 13 percent.
Greensite also noted her concern that this issue was not being taken seriously enough, speculating that this negligence was because the truth could possibly impact tourism.
Mike Rotkin, former mayor and city councilperson, agreed that this is a significant problem in Santa Cruz, but believes that it is being adequately addressed.
“You don’t want to report that there’s a shark in the water because there is a possibility no one would come to town. But we’re not trying to sweep it under the rug,” Rotkin said. “We’re a town that takes it seriously, but we have a lot to address.”
In the highly publicized Kind Grind Café rape at the Harbor on March 19, when a woman was raped at knifepoint, a bounty was soon placed on the assailant and the SCPD and the local community sprang into action. Many feel that this was an appropriate response to the crime.
“The rape at the Harbor is the kind of thing that really scares people and gets a lot of attention,” Agnone said.
Though there are high-profile cases and unreported cases, the fact remains that Santa Cruz still has a high level of rape.
“There is a higher rate of rape than there should be. It should be zero,” Rotkin said. “We just keep plugging away at it and hope it changes.”
In the future, CPVAW hopes that more people will report sexual assaults. Sending the message that the community does not tolerate this type of behavior could change the attitudes surrounding sexual assault, CPVAW’s members believe.
In her recent editorial in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, Greensite reminded Santa Cruzans that there is more to this issue than just numbers and facts alone: “Keep in mind that behind every statistic is a real person. Someone who has suffered a traumatic, life-altering, humiliating crime.”