Silicon Valley County Battles With Uber Over Reporting of Sexual Assault

In February, Terry Harman, an assistant district attorney for Santa Clara County in California, wrote a memo detailing her concerns about sexual assaults on Uber rides.

The memo she sent to her boss, District Attorney Jeff Rosen, said that although their office prosecuted several hundred sexual assault cases each year, only one had involved an Uber driver.

Based on data released by Uber, she estimated that riders in Santa Clara County had reported as many as 60 sexual assault incidents to the company in 2017 and 2018 alone.

“Uber receives a complaint, investigates the complaint, makes a finding and handles said finding internally and privately,” Ms. Harman said. “Uber has essentially carved out its own justice system.”

In the months since, Ms. Harman and other local officials, including Sam Liccardo, the mayor of San Jose, have repeatedly met with Uber, hoping to persuade the company to report sexual assaults to law enforcement, if only on a trial basis. But Uber has declined, local officials said, arguing that the victims should control when and how to disclose their experiences.

The impasse is part of a larger battle over the way Uber and other ride-hailing companies handle reports of sexual assault. In recent years, both Uber and Lyft have released data revealing the number of assault and harassment incidents reported to the company. The two companies have also started sharing data about dangerous drivers with each other. But some believe the companies should go further.

Over the past decade, some sexual assault survivors have sued the big ride-hailing companies, claiming they have failed to protect riders. Since September 2021, at least 40 women have filed such lawsuits against Uber. In August, 13 others sued Lyft. All of the suits are in the initial stages and have yet to go to trial.

In 2019, the California Public Utilities Commission ordered Uber to provide more detailed information about sexual assaults on Uber rides, including the names of any witnesses. When Uber failed to comply, the state fined the company $59 million. Uber later settled the case for more than $9 million.

Now, the Santa Clara district attorney’s office and the mayor of San Jose are arguing that Uber — and other ride-hailing companies — should report all such incidents to the authorities so that they can be officially investigated. This, they believe, is essential to maintaining public safety. People who assault a rider in an Uber car, they argue, may be kicked off the service, but that will not prevent them from assaulting someone in other situations.

“We just want Uber to call the police and let the police investigate,” Mr. Rosen said during a recent interview at his office in San Jose. “The victim may or may not want to talk to the police — and that is fine. But Uber needs to let us explain to the victim what their options are.”

In December 2019, Uber released its first “safety transparency report,” revealing that it had received nearly 6,000 reports of sexual assault on rides in 2017 and 2018. More than 1,240 of those complaints were made in California, according to numbers released by the California Public Utilities Commission.

Considering that Santa Clara County contains 5 percent of the state’s population, the district attorney’s office estimated that 62 assaults had occurred in the county during that two-year stretch. But only one incident was reported to the police.

Uber declined to discuss the estimate. The figure may include incidents that the district attorney would not prosecute.

This past spring, the district attorney’s office met twice with Uber executives in an effort to persuade them to report these incidents to the authorities. But Uber was adamant that it would not. It did, however, release a new safety report in the summer, revealing that the rate of reported sexual assaults decreased by 38 percent in 2019 and 2020.

The company has long argued that sexual assault victims should be the only ones to control when and how their experiences are reported. This, the company says, is the stance taken by advocacy groups that support sexual assault survivors, including the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, or RAINN, and the National Network to End Domestic Violence.

“Our position wasn’t created in a vacuum,” the company said in a statement to The New York Times. “It was guided by the foremost experts on this issue and by survivors themselves, all of whom have consistently told us that assuming someone wants the police involved, or pressuring them to do so, risks re-traumatizing them.”

Sandra Henriquez, chief executive of ValorUS, an association of rape crisis centers and sexual assault prevention programs that has long worked with Uber on policies related to sexual assault, sat in on one of the meetings with the Santa Clara district attorney’s office. She, too, told the district attorney that Uber should not share reports of sexual assault with the police.

“When survivors come forward and share something, they want to have control over who that information gets shared with,” she said. “That choice should belong to them and no one else.”

Ms. Henriquez had assumed that Santa Clara had dropped the matter — until The Times contacted her and Uber. In her mind, there are no circumstances in which Uber should reveal these incidents to law enforcement.

But after discussions with Uber and Ms. Henriquez, the mayor and the district attorney’s office still believe that Uber should report all such incidents to the authorities. And they said they would continue pressuring the company to do so.

Mr. Rosen, the district attorney, said the concerns of sexual assault victims must be balanced with the need for public safety. If Uber disclosed incidents to the police, he said, victims could still choose whether or not to talk to them.

He said the county had also had difficulty persuading colleges and universities in the area to report accusations of sexual assault. But all schools in the county, including Stanford University, have now agreed to do so.

“This is what I am looking for from Uber,” Mr. Rosen said. “It is in Uber’s interest to do this if it wants to be a positive part of society — just as it is in Stanford’s interest or the Catholic Church’s interest.”

Mr. Rosen also questions whether Uber properly explains to victims that contacting the police is an option. It is surprising, he said, that so few victims report sexual assaults to the county.

An Uber spokesman said that beginning in 2020, some of the victims receive an email that provides a hotline number operated by RAINN and mentions the option to report to law enforcement.

“We believe the decision to report to law enforcement is entirely up to you. If you decide to report this to police, please provide law enforcement with our online portal address,” the email reads, according to the company. “You do not need to report to law enforcement in order to call the hotline number above.”

Mayor Liccardo, who was part of another meeting with Uber at the end of September, said the company should at least explicitly explain to victims that the company does not report sexual assault incidents to the police and that incidents will not be officially investigated or prosecuted unless the victims themselves notify law enforcement.

“It is astounding that we hear arguments from these companies couched in the language of protecting the agency and autonomy of sexual assault survivors, when in fact they are not giving information to survivors that explains how they can take action to ensure assailants are arrested and prosecuted,” he said.

Mr. Liccardo, who is a former criminal prosecutor, is exploring the creation of a city ordinance that would require Uber and other ride-hailing companies to report all incidents themselves. He said he planned to send a memo to the San Jose City Council this week that calls for this new city law.

Though Uber says it will not share personal details with the authorities, there may be other possibilities. When Uber settled with the California Public Utilities Commission, it agreed to share information on sexual assault and harassment to the California regulator in a way that keeps victims anonymous and provides a way for them to share more information if they choose to.

The district attorney is at least hoping for some sort of trial agreement. “We’re in Silicon Valley, so we’re big on trials and pilots,” Mr. Rosen said. “Let’s just see how it works.”

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