By Mano Raju
Editor’s Note: On Tuesday, San Francisco Mayor London Breed launched emergency police intervention in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood. “It’s time the reign of criminals who are destroying our city, it is time for it to come to an end,” she said. “And it comes to an end when we take the steps to more aggressive with law enforcement. More aggressive with the changes in our policies and less tolerate of all the bullshit that has destroyed our city.” San Francisco Public Defender Mano Raju on Wednesday issued a response.
We recognize that the Mayor and many of our elected leaders feel pressured to address issues that have been amplified in the press, but the Mayor’s proposal to massively expand police presence in San Francisco is regressive and harmful to those who are already underserved and overpoliced. It also cuts against the promises Mayor Breed made to divest from law enforcement in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd.
Piling more resources into policing and punishment — strategies that have consistently succeeded only in creating intergenerational trauma — have never been the solutions to public health crises, in the Tenderloin or elsewhere. Policing is a back end response — it does not address the underlying reasons why crimes associated with poverty status take place, issues including economic need, mental illness, addiction, disease, or trauma. Rather, we should focus our resources on sustainable, evidence-based solutions that keep people healthy and out of the legal system by providing meaningful services to those suffering from substance abuse disorders and alternatives to street level sellers – including housing, treatment, job training, and employment.
Nor will the Mayor’s proposed police budget increase effectively address retail theft. The reality is, the actual rate of retail theft in 2021 is down in San Francisco compared to reported thefts in 2018 and 2019 according to SFPD data, and the overall shoplifting incidents reported to the police are below their levels before the start of the pandemic. Recently, SFPD released information highlighting an 82% drop in retail crime from the 16-day period prior — the period, in fact, which included the attention-grabbing videos of Union Square robberies. These problems are persistent because we have not addressed extreme economic need and inequity.
We are particularly concerned about giving police live-access to surveillance which we believe would undermine critical privacy laws that protect civil liberties. San Francisco police are already utilizing racially-biased, unreliable and illegal facial recognition technology, and giving them more tools to do so would further harm people of color and exacerbate existing economic and power dynamics. Mayor Breed’s press release rightfully notes that recent legislation “created a clear public process and transparency relating to surveillance technologies.” This proposal, which would undermine said process, raises serious concerns.
Expanding the carceral state is not the answer. We have tried that for decades and are still suffering the effects and human impacts of that. We must do better, and the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office is open and willing to participate in any process that attempts to address community health issues in a more holistic manner.
Mano Raju is the Elected San Francisco Public Defender