By Peter Santina
As a deputy public defender in San Francisco, I am not shocked at the revelation there is a white-power network within the Police Department.
“All n—–s must f—– hang,” one veteran SFPD officer texted former Sgt. Ian Furminger, who has been convicted and sentenced to prison for violating civil rights and stealing drug money.
“White power,” the cops repeatedly texted each other.
Four cops were recently found guilty of corruption-related charges in federal court. When Furminger’s text messages were partly released by the federal government last week, Furminger and four additional veteran officers were exposed as “virulent racist[s],” in the words of the federal prosecutor. Every officer involved had been on the job for more than 10 years. Now 10 more officers, including a police captain, are being investigated for racist messages.
Why am I not shocked? For nine years as a public defender, I have witnessed far less openly virulent — but far more damaging — institutionalized racism of the San Francisco criminal justice system. Every morning, young and old African Americans are paraded through courtrooms in San Francisco, dressed in orange jumpsuits not unlike Guantanamo inmates and often shackled in handcuffs or chains. After a very brief court appearance, usually less than two minutes, they are returned to their cells, where they are given terrible food and their families are charged exorbitant fees for their phone calls.
I’ve sat beside too many innocent black clients who frightfully whisper, “What was that deal again?” as they watch the jury panel of 80-120 people — almost always less than five and often zero black potential jurors — walk into the courtroom.
I’ve heard too many dehumanizing comments from judges, such as one who was fond of explaining her denial of release to people accused of nonviolent drug offenses with the phrase, “Too bad, so sad.”
I’ve sat in too many courtrooms where prosecutors asked about, and judges always agreed, a white police officer being legally qualified as an “expert” on “black gangs” or “Latin gangs.” I’ve seen the bewildered faces when I questioned how the “Latin gang expert” was a white man who did not speak Spanish, had never lived in the neighborhood, and conceded that much of his “expertise” was drawn from television shows about gangs.
I’ve experienced the casual friendliness of an undercover narcotics officer smiling genuinely at me and calling out, “Hello, counselor!” as his hands move around inside the crotch area of a black man’s pants.
If you get charged with a felony in San Francisco, nearly every single prosecution plea bargain will require (after you get released from jail or prison) that you give up your Fourth Amendment right against illegal search and seizure (a “search condition”). Too many of my black clients say, “Well, they’re gonna search me anyway.”
It’s too easy to just blame bad cops. Furminger’s text messages are merely part of the fabric of institutional racism that permeates every aspect of the San Francisco criminal justice system. Sadly, a judge or prosecutor does not need to be a white power activist, a la Furminger’s crew, in order to support institutional racism. Many judges and prosecutors do not privately use racial slurs (I hope) and are friendly with lawyers of color. But the vast majority of judges and prosecutors are resigned to the bureaucratic daily reality: countless black people in orange jumpsuits, shackled and imprisoned, their freedoms thrown away with all the care of a toddler stepping on a roly-poly.
Racism in San Francisco has made headlines in the past few years. In 2013, off-duty black Officer Lorenzo Adamson was detained and questioned by three white police officers. They demanded to know if Adamson was on parole, ordered him out of his car, and choked and arrested him. Instead of charging the white officers, District Attorney George Gascon charged the 15-year police veteran with crimes against police. A judge found probable cause that Adamson was guilty. A jury found him not guilty.
Adamson’s lawsuit against The City is pending. This is not a new problem here. In 1994, San Francisco made the news when its incarceration rate for black men was twice the U.S. average and 10 times the rate of Apartheid-era South Africa. But in the 21 years since, San Francisco has grown stomach-churningly worse. The City’s jail in 1994 had 4.4 times the proportion of black inmates as in San Francisco as a whole. By 2012, the jail population was 9.5 times more black than The City. But when many non-black people hear about racial disparities, there are two common responses.
Some people tend to think poverty is the explanation. There is truth there; the American criminal justice system almost exclusively incarcerates poor people. However, at least in San Francisco, poverty does not explain the disparity. If the jail reflected the poverty rate, the jail would be 37 percent Asian, 28 percent white, 21 percent Latino and just 14 percent black. In fact, the jail is 57 percent black.
The other response is more common but less public: Black people commit more crime. In fact, black people are arrested for hard-drug possession more than three times more often than white people, but a significantly higher percentage of whites use hard drugs. The same statistics apply for marijuana crimes.
Most tellingly, when people hear that black people are disproportionately locked up, many become more supportive of harsh prison policies. In 2014, researchers at Stanford University documented that when Bay Area residents were shown mugshots of black inmates, they were more supportive of harsh three-strikes laws. In contrast, when shown mugshots of white inmates, residents wanted to reform three strikes to make it less punitive.
Fifty years after Giants’ star Willie Mays faced housing discrimination in San Francisco, the same attitudes pervade our society. Let’s not wait another 50 years for change. Hollywood made a movie about Selma, Ala., and the Justice Department wrote a report about Ferguson, Mo. It is time to address the apartheid-like conditions in the metropolis and stop giving passes to the “liberal” coastal cities like San Francisco.
Peter Santina is a deputy public defender in San Francisco. After graduating from Harvard University and UC Berkeley School of Law, Santina has defended poor people accused of crimes for nine years.