San Francisco Police Department data indicate that there were 26,758 more serious felony crimes – murder, arson and motor vehicle theft – reported in 2015 than in 2010. All told, in 2015 there were 53,291 property offenses and 6,776 violent crimes. However, while felonies were up, arrests were down over the period. The arrest rate was 19 percent in 2010, compared to just nine percent in 2015.
“Our rate of action has remained virtually the same since before DA Gascón took office,” said Max Szabo, communications and legislative affairs manager for the District Attorney’s Office. Szabo emphasized that the data reflected a reduction in cases presented by police, not lower activity by the DA’s office.
Two previous articles by the View found that the DA’s Office did not maintain data on the rate at which gun-related crimes in the City resulted in a prosecution. Evidence suggests that upwards of half the murders committed in San Francisco remain unsolved.
A 2014 initiative, Proposition 47, which reduced penalties for drug and property crimes, may be responsible for the low arrest rate, a pattern that’s being replicated throughout the state. Recent state Justice Department data indicate that the number of felony arrests in California plummeted by almost 29 percent, while misdemeanor arrests rose by nine percent, from 2014 to 2015. “It’s really driven by changes in drug and property arrests,” said Magnus Lofstrom, senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California. “I think it’s quite clear that Proposition 47 is the major contributor to the changes we’ve seen.”
Arrest rate reductions may also be linked to ongoing conflicts between the DA and SFPD. In the wake of “textgate,” a scandal involving racist and homophobic text messages exchanged by 14 San Francisco police officers that were discovered in 2015, George Gascón became concerned that deeper issues may have interfered with the integrity of the justice system. Gascón responded by helping to create the Blue Ribbon Panel on Transparency, Accountability, and Fairness in Law Enforcement, an advisory body that investigates institutionalized bias within SFPD. The panel consists of three judges and members of law firms.
After reviewing 4,000 police reports written by the officers who sent the text messages, and interviewing 100 witnesses, the Blue Ribbon Panel concluded that SFPD needs to be more sensitive to institutionalized bias, lacks transparency and should be subject to greater oversight.
“Funding was recently approved that will enable us to create an Independent Investigations Bureau,” said Szabo. “Right now the police department is the lead investigative agency in officer involved shootings, and that is problematic. Best practices and commonsense dictate that agencies don’t investigate themselves due to the inherent conflict of interest. Moreover, when police investigate themselves the public has less faith in the outcome, even where the use of force was justified and police have nothing to hide.”
Similarly, voters passed Measure D last June, which mandates that the San Francisco Office of Citizen Complaints formally investigate every officer-involved shooting.
Gascón was elected DA in 2011, after serving as the City’s police chief for the previous two years, and being engaged in law enforcement for more than a quarter-century, including as a police officer in Los Angeles. Last month, he participated in a panel discussion, Policing the Police: Reforming American Law Enforcement, held at GLIDE Sanctuary. The Commonwealth Club and GLIDE Center for Social Justice organized the event to promote discussion about the Blue Ribbon Panel’s findings, which were issued in July. Also on the panel was CNN commentator Van Jones, retired Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso, former San Jose police auditor LaDoris Cordell, and SFPD deputy chief Mikail Ali. The conversation was moderated by CNN’s justice reporter Scott Glover.
During the discussion Gascón reflected on how much the DA’s office depends on the testimonies of police officers to ensure justice. He shared a story about patrolling as a cop in Hollywood and being told by a community member that he couldn’t be trusted, given a recent police department scandal. Based on that experience he became convinced of the need to hold officers accountable. “What a few people do wrong in law enforcement can have a tremendous impact on the work of everyone else,” he offered.
Panel discussion revolved around a lack of police transparency and accountability, institutionalized bias against African-Americans and Latinos, and excessive use of force by officers. Gascón mentioned that the issues aren’t new, but are coming to light more because constables now wear body cameras.
He was surprised and disgusted by the extent of racism reflected in the text messages. Based on the “casual way” in which the Police Department conducted its initial investigation, Gascón didn’t believe that the bias was limited to the 14 officers. But when he attempted to launch a deeper investigation, he found no support from other municipal officials. The San Francisco Examiner reported that Mayor Ed Lee refused Gascón’s request for funding to pay members of the Blue Ribbon Panel, which operates independently of the DA’s office.
“What we have seen in different parts of the country, and frankly, what we’ve seen here in San Francisco, should be a wake-up call for all of us,” Gascón stated. “It’s certainly a wake-up call for me. I have to tell you that if we were having this conversation about three years ago I would be in a very different place. While I’ve been involved in law enforcement for the last thirty years, the last three have been a tremendous evolution for me and I’m at a place where I believe that we have a tremendous opportunity to turn things around. We have to act.”
The District Attorney’s Office operates under a constitutional mandate to ensure fair execution of justice. The Office is small compared to the Police Department, with fewer personnel and a budget that’s eight percent of SFPD’s. Because it doesn’t have staff in the community, the DA largely depends on work done by police. Unlike police work that’s often “reactive” by nature, the DA tries to build “strong, significant cases,” by tying a single suspect to multiple crimes that carry greater penalties. “A small percentage of offenders commit the vast majority of crime,” remarked Szabo.
Last summer, Gascón and four mental health professionals proposed creating a Behavioral Health Justice Center to help rehabilitate those with psychological issues, who are disproportionally incarcerated in jails that lack treatment resources. Gascón also launched an Alternative Sentencing Program, to work with prosecutors to better assess offenders’ risk level on a case by case basis so as to reduce recidivism; and a Sentencing Commission, to analyze sentencing trends and associated outcomes to identify practices to reduce the rate at which offenders re-commit crimes after they’ve served their time. Neighborhood Prosecutors Units were established in 2014 to enable community stakeholders to address low-level criminal activity instead of sending the cases to overburdened courtrooms, with five neighborhood prosecutors covering the City’s 10 police districts. The units allow community leaders to work closely with police officers to curb nuisances and address neighborhood-specific challenges.