By David M. Greenwald
San Francisco, CA – A Thursday hearing saw Supervisor Dean Preston hold a hearing on the use of taxpayer funds for police and public safety propaganda that he called a first of its kind.
The hearing examined the communications offices within the SF Mayor’s Office and the San Francisco Police Department, including their costs and any policies and procedures to ensure accurate information about public safety matters.
“Ultimately, the power of so-called ‘copaganda’ comes from the way it shapes people’s perception of crime, public safety, and potential solutions to societal issues,” said Preston. “Our City departments’ press units should be used to share factual information, not to sensationalize and spin crime data, undermine police oversight, or normalize racial disparities in use of force against people of color within our City.”
The hearing featured testimony from Alec Karakatsanis of Civil Rights Corps. He spoke out against the nature of “copaganda” and its potential harms.
The term “copaganda” has been used by advocates and journalists to describe the phenomenon of media manipulation by law enforcement agencies and their promoters to influence public opinion regarding police and policing issues.
UPDATE: This story just gets weirder: A few months ago, @radleybalko at Washington Post debunked pro-cop coverage by a local reporter. Here are text messages from SFPD Director of "Strategic Communications" to the reporter from a public records request. https://t.co/dvYzJxsiPU pic.twitter.com/y99pCUYSPx
— Alec Karakatsanis (@equalityAlec) May 5, 2022
Karakatsanis during his testimony highlighted three areas of copaganda that have been particularly pervasive in San Francisco over the last 18 months in his view.
He said, “The first is an attempt by police and certain allies in local media to narrow and very significantly constrain the kinds of things that we think of as harm.”
He explained “when police are talking about crime and harm they only talk about certain kinds of harms committed against certain kinds of people and perpetrated by certain kinds of people.”
For example, he said, “you see the San Francisco Police Department issuing press release after press release after press release, and the local media in San Francisco issuing article after article after article about what they call retail theft or shoplifting.”
But he argued, “I have not been able to find a single example of the San Francisco police department issuing a press release about wage theft. What we know about wage theft is that it dwarfs all other property crime combined. It dwarfs robbery, burglary, shoplifting, and retail theft, combined wage theft by conservative estimates, costing people about $50 billion a year.”
As a result, he said, “it’s not an accident, for example, that San Francisco has hugely disproportionate racial disparities in terms of the people that it’s investigating.”
Karakatsanis pointed out that the second that we have seen “in local media in San Francisco, and this is, you know, where the misinformation has really been out of control is, um, creating a constant sense among the population that crime is surging, or that there is a crime wave or that crime is somehow out of control. When we are still at near historic lows in virtually every kind of crime in San Francisco.”
He said “they suggest without any basis in the empirical evidence or the scientific literature or any source citation at all, that the solution to those issues is more money and more resources for surveillance and punishment. This is one of the most pernicious forms of copaganda.”
Finally, he argued, “this is the final form of copaganda. It is the false and misleading link between police, prosecutors and punishment to safety. And, and that is something that you see in the San Francisco police department, strategic communications department, sort of rampantly, trying to influence the local media.”
Supervisor Mendleman pushed back.
He acknowledged that Karakatsanis has done “extraordinarily things and has changed many aspects of incarceration in this country.”
But he said, “I think he is gaslighting us. I think that he has very strong opinions about what is happening in San Francisco, apparently without talking with San Franciscans about their daily lived experiences and as someone who does support progressive reform and generally supports progressive policies and wants to see Democrats win nationally and wants to see our country become a more, just, fair and equitable place. I think following the siren song of someone like Mr. Karakatsanis and allowing him to drive policy conversations is extraordinarily dangerous.”
He continued, “The notion that someone could tell San Franciscans that their concerns about retail theft are inappropriate or somehow missing the point because there is wage theft tax, evasion and water pollution, um, is extraordinary, saying that retail theft is not an out-of-control situation in San Francisco is nuts.”
Given the public discourse in San Francisco over the last 18 months, one might have expected that many in the public would have sided with Supervisor Mandleman.
Indeed, the first commenter noted, “I need a moment to catch my breath after listening to what I just heard from your guest, the civil rights attorney. I am appalled at what I just heard, the falsehoods. The accusations against the police were unacceptable. I’m offended that you would bring someone like that into this body for all of us to hear. I’m offended by that.”
But one might have been surprised to learn that the vast majority of the public commenters seemed to agree with Alec Karatkasanis and Supervisor Dean Preston.
As one person noted, “I want to thank Mr. Karakatsanis for taking the time to speak today and for presenting what I think was valuable testimony.”
She said, “I do have questions about how the police communicate their messages. I am particularly concerned about how the issue of anti-Asian violence was presented. It’s been vastly underreported and despite all the hype that the police gave the issue overall, it was vastly underreported that there was one person who committed over half of all the anti-Asian hate crimes in San Francisco in 2021 and he’s a white person. Yet the media with the help of San Francisco police department continues to portray these crimes as being largely affected by individuals who are Black.”
Another commenter addressed Mandleman, his supervisor, who said, “I believe your perspective on this is shortsighted. Transparency is more than a slogan.” He said, “I would like to think that we could agree that the strategic communication product of the San Francisco police department at minimum should be factually accurate. And on that simple standard far too often, they have not met that simple standard.”
Another commenter noted that he would like to see “crimes committed by SFPD, such as false stops and detainments, reported. It’s amazing to me that these sorts of things can go unreported.”
Another person, a business person in Haight-Ashbury said she’s been very active in her merchant association for the last 16 years, and said, “I can’t say there has been a marked increase in retail theft in our commercial corridor.” She added, “I believe that as a result of the SFPD taking a defensive posture and really trying to look out for budgets that that’s gotten in the way of us actually doing constructive work of improvement in our quarters and improving public safety.”
Another speaker thanked Supervisor Preston “for calling this historic hearing.” He said, “I want to point out that the San Francisco Police Department budget has been bloated for the past several years on an increasing basis while they do not solve or attempt to solve many crimes, including violent crimes.”
According to a release from Dean Preston after the hearing, “The hearing revealed some startling facts, including that the Mayor’s press operation is not guided by any written policies or procedures. The Mayor’s press releases mentioning the SFPD overwhelmingly either advocates for increased police staffing/funding or makes claims that SFPD had been reformed.”
In addition, SFPD press releases all contain the claim that SFPD is a department “where police reform has worked.”
However, Preston says, “The claim has been contradicted by police reform experts, including Samuel Sinyangwe, founder of Mapping Police Violence and Police Scorecard.”
These experts lambasted the SFPD’s framing and noted, “Despite attempts by SFPD to claim the limited reforms they’ve implemented to date are working, San Francisco continues to have among the worst policing outcomes in the nation, with more extreme racial disparities in policing and higher use of force rates than most other major cities.”
In a theme repeated on various issues in the hearing, Preston questioned the departments not just on what is in their press materials, but what is omitted.
Preston said, “They issue press releases on arrests, but never mention clearance rates. They issue press releases claiming to be a model for reform, yet they never mention racial disparities. They issue press releases on certain crimes like car thefts, but never on wage theft which constitutes over 50% of crime and never on white collar crime. They are making decisions every day that shape the coverage and the public perceptions and fuel demand for more police and more policing regardless of the impacts or result.”
The hearing also uncovered that the media operations are not barebones operations. With over 17 full-time employees dedicated to communications and press work within the Mayor’s Office and SFPD, taxpayers spend nearly $3 million per year on staffing costs alone.
Given various concerns around oversight and accountability in regard to the departments’ media work, Preston urged the departments to adopt clearer policies for their media work, and urged oversight bodies to pay close attention to how taxpayer funds are used on such communications. The hearing comes as the Board of Supervisors is preparing to begin the budget process in which funding for police and alternatives to policing are likely to be at issue.
After the fact, Alec Karakatsanis called the behavior of “progressive” Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, “alarming.”
THREAD. Yesterday I was invited to testify at San Francisco Board of Supervisors about newly revealed documents showing big taxpayer expenditures on copaganda. The behavior of one the "progressive" Supervisors @RafaelMandelman was alarming. It's important to explain what he did.
— Alec Karakatsanis (@equalityAlec) May 6, 2022
Karakatsanis argued “copaganda narrows our conception of ‘safety’ to a small category of individual crimes that cops report, not larger criminal and non-criminal threats to safety from inequality, pollution, lack of health care, housing, wage theft, gender-based violence, etc.”
He argued, “This is important because these other harms are preventable and kill, sicken, defraud, and injure **orders of magnitude more people** than the narrow category of ‘property’ and ‘violent’ crimes cops choose to track. “