By Darling Gonzalez
SAN FRANCISCO, CA – A recent tweet by founder of Civic Rights Corps, Alec Karakatsanis, exposed San Francisco Chronicle’s alarming story headlines, heavily driven by information from police sources.
In the Twitter thread, Karakatsanis includes a photo of the SF Chronicle’s homepage emphasizing the language driven by police narratives.
Among the many articles mentioned by Karakatsanis is one story in the SF Chronicle by Rachel Swan entitled, “Is an international crime operation targeting the Bay Area’s wealthiest cities with ‘burglary tourism’?”
The piece highlights the extensive police influence on information being publicized and inciting fear for cities across San Francisco, said Karakatsanis.
Swan’s article begins with a story about Max Schenk and his experience with a robbery in his home where, in an interview with the SF Chronicle, he mentions that he “heard two [of the burglars] speak Spanish.”
Swan also includes how Schenk was not aware at the time about the controversial theory created by police that would explain the burglaries in wealthy Peninsula towns, Swan mentioned.
At the time, police had formulated a theory that an international operation rooted in South America had infiltrated the Bay Area and was contributing to the trend of burglaries.
Yet, the police’s narratives were highly one-sided as they frequently associated burglaries to thieves that arrived from Chile, without any solid evidence or prosecutions proving their claims, suggested Karakatsanis.
“So far, however, law enforcement in San Mateo County has made no arrests, and San Mateo County District Attorney Stephen Wagstaffe’s office is not prosecuting any burglary cases with fact patterns like the ones described by police,” Swan included.
Nonetheless, of the eight burglaries that occurred in January, the police theory continued to imply that six of those burglaries were aligned to their ongoing narrative of the “international operations.”
Swan also notes there have been no arrests or prosecutions, so information on the thieves is truly unknown.
Yet police continue to push forward, said Karakatsanis, inciting fear for communities in the wealthier areas of SF by supporting the idea that there are organized crime groups operating across international borders.
According to reporter Swan, Atherton Police Chief Steven McCulley had also referred to the perpetrators as “Chilean gangs” while denying that officers are singling out suspects due to ethnicity or immigration status.
Additionally, in an attempt to demonstrate that their department was not anti-immigrant, the captain from Hillsborough “softened” his language by replacing “Chilean burglary crews” to “criminal tourism.”
In her story, Swan also adds a statement by Santa Clara University Law Professor Pratheepan Gulasekaram, where she explains the dangers of the police’s influence over information being spread on the burglaries.
“There is no real public safety rationale for identifying a perpetrator group by their immigration status, unless your goal is to either reduce immigration to the United States or for some reason you’re interested in stoking xenophobia or anti-foreigner bias,” Pratheepan said.
Swan includes UC Berkeley Law Professor Jonathan Simon’s statement on how police consistently use conjecture to fill in an information gap in their investigations.
“Narratives like that of the South American theft groups are ‘like catnip’ for law enforcement,” Simon said, “often spawning when a set of facts aligns with long-held beliefs about immigrants in an environment where police departments easily exchange information on social media.”
Although writer Swan includes this information, the rest of the article is submerged in language with fear-mongering undertones as she details peoples’ experiences with the robberies, said Karakatsanis.
For example, Swan mentions specific items that were stolen such as a “limited-edition Franck Muller watch” in Schenk’s experience and details two experiences where the victims avoided showering out of fear.
Karakatsanis note, “(E)ven if a small group of people from Chile with ‘skill and alacrity’ (again LOL) are stealing ‘a limited edition Franck Muller watch’ from a millionaire in CA, is that near the 100 most important stories one of the country’s leading newspapers should be telling?”