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Silicon Valley County Fights Uber Over Sexual Assault Allegations

Special for Infobae of New York Times.

SAN JOSE, Calif. — In February, Terry Harman, an assistant district attorney for California’s Santa Clara County, wrote a memo detailing his concerns about sexual assaults in Uber rides.

The document he sent to his boss, District Attorney Jeff Rosen, said that while his office prosecuted several hundred sexual assault cases a year, only one involved an Uber driver.

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

“Uber takes a complaint, investigates it, makes a finding and handles that finding internally and privately,” Harman said. “In practice, Uber has created its own justice system,” he added.

Since then, Harman and other local authorities, including San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, have met with Uber on several occasions, hoping to convince the company to report the sexual assaults to law enforcement authorities, even if it is as a test. However, authorities say Uber has refused, arguing that victims should control when and how they disclose their experiences.

This standoff is part of a larger battle over how Uber and other ride-sharing companies report sexual assault. In recent years, both Uber and Lyft have released data revealing the number of attacks and harassment incidents reported to the company. In addition, the two companies began sharing data on dangerous drivers with each other. But there are those who believe that companies should do more.

In the past decade, some sexual assault victims have sued these ride-sharing corporations, arguing that they are failing to protect their riders. Since September 2021, at least 40 women have filed such lawsuits against Uber. In August, another 13 sued Lyft. All the lawsuits are in early stages and have not yet gone to trial.

In 2019, the California Public Utilities Commission ordered Uber to provide more detailed information about sexual assaults on its rides, including the names of witnesses. Because Uber failed to comply, the state fined it $59 million. Uber then settled out of court for more than $9 million.

Now, the Santa Clara district attorney’s office and the mayor of San José are arguing that Uber — and other ride-hailing companies — should report all such incidents to authorities so they can be officially investigated. They consider this act essential to maintain public safety. In his opinion, while people who assault a user in an Uber car can be removed from the service, that does not prevent them from assaulting someone else in other circumstances.

“We just want Uber to call the police and let them investigate,” Rosen said during a recent interview at his San Jose office. “The victim may or may not want to talk to the police and that’s 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 some 6,000 complaints of sexual assault on rides in 2017 and 2018. More than 1,240 of those complaints were made in California. according to figures released by the California Public Utilities Commission.

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

Uber declined to discuss the calculation. The figure may include incidents not prosecuted by the district attorney.

In the spring, the district attorney’s office met twice with Uber executives to try to convince them to report these incidents to authorities. However, Uber insisted it wouldn’t, but it did release a new safety report over the summer, revealing that the rate of reported sexual assaults dropped 38 percent in 2019 and 2020.

The company has long argued that sexual assault victims should have sole control over when and how they report their assaults. The company says that is the position taken by advocacy groups that support sexual assault survivors, including the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) and the National Network for End Domestic Violence.

“Our stance is not our brainchild,” the company said in a statement to the New York Times. “Leading experts on this issue and survivors themselves have told us consistently that assuming someone wants the police to get involved, or pressuring them to do so, risks re-traumatizing them,” the company said.

Sandra Henriquez, executive director 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, was present at one of the meetings with prosecutors. Santa Clara district. She also told the district attorney that Uber should not share sexual assault claims with police.

“When survivors reach out and share something, they want control over who that information is shared with. That decision should belong to them and no one else.”

Rosen, the district attorney, said the concerns of sexual assault victims must be balanced against the need for public safety. In his opinion, if Uber disclosed the incidents to the police, the decision whether or not to speak to the authorities would remain in the hands of the victims.

Rosen also wonders if Uber adequately explains to victims that they have the option of contacting the police. Surprisingly, so few victims report sexual assaults to the county.

An Uber spokesperson said that since 2020, some victims receive an email that provides a hotline operated by RAINN and mentions the option to file a report with the authorities.

“We believe that the decision to file a police report is entirely up to you. If you decide to report this to the police, please provide the authorities with the address of our online portal,” the company email reads. “You don’t need to file a police report to call the customer service phone number listed above,” he adds.

Liccardo, who was present at another meeting with Uber in late September, said the company should at least make it clear to victims that they do not report incidents of sexual assault to the police and that there may be no official investigation or prosecution unless that the victims themselves report what happened to the authorities.

“We are surprised to hear that these companies hide behind the language of protecting the authority and autonomy of victims of sexual assault, when in fact they are not providing them with information explaining that they can take steps to ensure that their aggressors are arrested and prosecuted”, he commented.

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