United States: Push back against policing reforms in San Francisco

March 28, 2024
protester and police tape
Across the United States, police accountability reforms, won after the 2020 mass protests against police violence, are being eroded. Foreground photo: Lisa Ahlberg

In the March 5 primary elections in San Francisco, a city long hated by conservatives for its liberal and progressive image, voters adopted two propositions (E and F) to increase police powers. Both passed by large margins.

Democrat Mayor London Breed, most liberals, conservatives and Black District Attorney Brooke Jenkins all supported the changes. They advocated a law-and-order message that would make former California governor and president, Ronald Reagan, proud.

Across the country, police accountability reforms, won after the 2020 mass protests against police violence, are being eroded.

Breed, the city’s first African American woman mayor, is seeking re-election in November. San Francisco, like other Bay Area cities, has employed more police, raised their salaries and protected them from those seeking accountability for corruption and violence against civilians.

San Franco’s pro-cop propositions reflect a broader counter-offensive by liberals and conservatives against the movement that grew dramatically in 2020 after Minneapolis police murdered African American George Floyd.

The protests were diverse and the largest seen in decades, and across small towns and large cities.

A third proposition, Proposition B, also raising police numbers but keeping some reforms, failed with 67% voting No. Breed opposed the measure.

Had Prop B won, it would have set a new minimum staffing level for the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) — which would have risen every year for five years — and increased funding for police staffing. It was labeled by many opponents as a “cop tax”.

Moving rightward

While most people outside San Francisco see the city as soft on crime and anti-police; that has never been the case.

Breed has also moved to the right on issues such as helping the unhoused, and supports wider police surveillance. She also opposes paying reparations to city residents who are descendants of slaves.

The United States criminal justice system has always favoured the wealthy and well off. It also profiles Black and Brown people.

Based on 2019 city and county data, African Americans composed about 6% of San Francisco’s population, down from 13.4% in 1970. There are about 56,000 people of full or partial Black ancestry living within the city.

The Black population is the only racial group in the city that has consistently declined.

As the data shows, San Francisco police were five-times more likely to stop Black people due to traffic violations than white people in recent years. That’s a similar rate to Los Angeles, though some of the Bay Area’s wealthiest enclaves have even worse disparities.

Oversight reined in

As reported in the San Francisco Chronicle on March 6, Proposition E enables the SFPD to hide police violence by reducing the information police collect when reporting so-called “use-of-force incidents”.

“A review of SFPD data found that in the last quarter of 2022, the department was twenty-five times more likely to use force on Black people than on white people.”

Also supported by the mayor, the SFC reported, are changes to give police additional powers, “and rein in the Police Department’s oversight body, the Police Commission.

Police officers will only need to file “use-of-force reports” when a use of force physically injures a person or if the officer points or uses a firearm.

“The measure includes a change to vehicle pursuit regulation to allow officers to chase someone they believe is committing a felony or violent misdemeanor. It also will allow police to install public surveillance cameras and use drones and facial recognition technology.”

As the San Francisco Standard reported, Proposition E received more than A$1.6 million in funding “from a variety of moderate funders”. Meanwhile, opponents of the proposition, including the American Civil Liberties Union, raised about A$200,000.

Violating human rights

The passing of Proposition F involves drug screening for the city’s welfare recipients, requires welfare recipients struggling with addiction to enrol in treatment to continue to receive financial help and “gives the police and city more ways to violate the rights of unhoused people and homeless,” the SFS reported.

Critics say the measure could lead to people grappling with poverty and homelessness losing vital financial assistance from a county program that provides up to $712 a month for housed residents and $109 for unhoused people.

Voters approved Proposition F by 63% to 37%, based on election night data. Breed also supported Proposition F.

Punitive ‘treatment’

HealthRight 360, the city’s largest addiction treatment provider, the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, and Roma Guy, co-founder of La Casa de las Madres, SF Women Against Rape and The Women's Foundation of California opposed Proposition F.

The measure is punitive, and there are currently not enough treatment beds for all those who will be forced into the program.

A statewide proposition, Proposition 1, which also narrowly passed, allows police and state agencies to forcibly remove unhoused people from the streets and place them under mental health detention against their will.

This proposition was backed by Democratic governor Gavin Newsom, a former mayor of San Francisco. He said it would help military veterans and those under drug treatment. Few resources are planned to help those unhoused.

What the votes show

The Propositions reflect the broader campaign in the Bay Area to turn back police reforms.

In Oakland, the largest city in Alameda County, a pro-police law-and-order campaign is being waged against the first Black woman elected as the County’s District Attorney (DA), Pamela Price, and the first Hmong Asian elected as Mayor of Oakland, Sheng Thao.

In both cases, recalls were launched straight after their unexpected elections. The coalition formed against them includes Black, Asian and white voters.

Chesa Boudin, a progressive San Francisco DA, was recalled after two years in office in 2022 for allegedly being soft on crime. Boudin had been a public defender before being elected DA.

While opponents of the attacks have answered the lies and smears with facts and results, the media and Democratic Party establishment have retreated on issues of police accountability and reform.

The counter-offensive against reforms and accountability also denies FBI and government data that shows a 13% decline in murder in 2023 from 2022, a 6% decline in reported violent crime and a 4% decline in reported property crime in the same period. As reported in newsweek.com on March 21, the figures are based on data from about 13,000 law enforcement agencies, covering about 82% of the US population, provided to the FBI in December.

Data and facts are not enough to stop police criminality. Accountability only happens when the system feels threatened, like it did during the mass movement for Black lives.

Only mass public action can stop the pro-cop pushback.

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