Yee seeks community support for bystander law
on February 9, 2010
State Sen. Leland Yee met with Rev. Andre Shumake of the Richmond Improvement Association (RIA) last month, seeking community support for a proposed bystander law. Yee’s proposed legislation, which is in response to a rape at Richmond High school last October, would make witnessing and failing to report sexual assault a crime if the victim is under age 18.
As many as 20 witnesses watched multiple assailants rape a 16-year-old student after the homecoming dance last fall. None of the bystanders called police to report the crime, a fact that shocked many Richmond residents in the days after the rape, as details of the assault became public. The bystanders’ failure to report the assault was not considered a crime because the victim was 16. Currently, bystanders are only compelled to report sexual assaults when victims are 14 or under. Witnesses who fail to report such a crime face up to six months in jail or a $1500 fine.
“What the bill is about, more than anything else, is protecting our children. Eighteen years and below—they are still our babies.” Yee said during a Jan. 27 meeting at his Sacramento office. Rev. Shumake was in attendance, as were two members of RIA, Doug Harris and James Cash. A Yee aide, assistant consultant Djibril Diop, also was part of the meeting.
“Whatever support you can get on the ground, we would appreciate that,” Yee told Shumake. Yee and Shumake had previously discussed arranging town hall meetings in support of the legislation. The town halls would be hosted by Richmond faith-based organizations including RIA.
The community is “nervous that (a new bystander law) will be used to make more arrests,” Shumake said in response. “I think that there is a momentum building for this.”
Shumake founded RIA in 1999, and the organization has since been focused on violence prevention in the city. Shumake said he favors the law because it may prevent or lessen the severity of sexual assaults on minors.
“I’m amazed at how few people knew there was an existing law,” Shumake said.
State Assemblyman Pedro Nava proposed a bill that would punish bystanders who fail to report crimes, regardless of the age of the victim.
The ACLU opposes both bystander bills proposed by the California legislature. Valerie Small Novarro, a legislative advocate for the ACLU, said Yee’s legislation could penalize citizens “for being at the wrong place at they wrong time.” She also said that punishment for witnessing a crime flies in the face of the criminal justice system’s purpose, which is to “penalize people where there is wrongdoing or wrongful intent.”
“For many law enforcement agencies, there are issues within the community with the failure to trust the police,” Novarro said, adding that residents don’t believe that they will be protected if they report crimes.
“Many years of work result in trust,” she said. “ You can’t just pass a bill and create trust.”
Yee expects progressive senators will oppose the bill because of civil liberty concerns such as those described by Novarro. The anticipated opposition is one of Yee’s motivations for seeking community support in Richmond before the legislation comes before the senate, he said.
Yee’s office said that the legislation would help build a sense of communal responsibility in Richmond.
“The law will responsibilize people and remind people that we all live in a village,” Diop said.
Shumake pledged to build support for Lee’s law by holding a series of town hall meetings with Richmond residents, and Yee agreed to make an appearance at one of the meetings.
Bay Area legislators have a duty to Richmond, even if they don’t represent the city themselves, Yee said, and he urged Shumake to reach out to the regional lawmakers.
Shumake said Richmond suffers from a lack of leadership to manage the difficult problems of violence and poverty that face the city.
“The residents of Richmond are fed up with living in fear,” he said.
Yee expects the first review of the bill in late February or early March.
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