SF’s Criminal Justice System Faces Challenges

in by

Last month, incumbent Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi was defeated by former Chief Deputy Sheriff Vicki Hennessy, who took 62 percent of the vote. Hennessy, who was backed by the San Francisco Deputy Sheriffs’ Association and Mayor Ed Lee, was running for office for the first time.  She conveyed a simple message:  she’ll restore a troubled department to one that’s professional, well-trained, humane, and communicative. 

In the fall of 2014 the Sheriff Department’s credibility was shaken after the body of missing San Francisco General Hospital patient Lynn Spalding was found in a stairwell by deputies nine days after she disappeared from her hospital room.  Deputies had previously failed to search the building.  The City paid $3 million to Spalding’s family to settle a lawsuit over the incident. 

Last spring the Sheriff Department faced allegations that correctional deputies at San Francisco’s County Jail had orchestrated inmate fights, gambling on the outcomes.  Mirkarimi was exposed to national scrutiny last summer over the shooting of City resident Kate Steinle by undocumented Mexican immigrant Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez.  Lopez-Sanchez had been released from County Jail days before the incident, despite a detainer for him issued by U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The case became the focus of a national debate over immigration policies, with GOP presidential candidates, most notably Donald Trump, using Steinle’s murder to demand tougher immigration enforcement, and call for an end to municipal sanctuary laws.

While criticism related to these incidences focused on Mirkarimi, the dysfunctional pattern exhibited by the Sheriff’s Department may underscore a problem that permeates San Francisco’s criminal justice system. “It is true that no one agency has a monopoly on misconduct or dysfunction. Implicit bias and dysfunction has been well-documented nationally, not only in law enforcement but in the court system as well,” Public Defender Jeff Adachi said.

The San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) has faced several high profile controversies of its own, including the fatal shooting of 20 year old Guatemalan immigrant Amilcar Perez-Lopez, botched crime laboratory tests that called hundreds of criminal cases into question, and accusations of misconduct and racial profiling after fourteen officers were accused of sending racist and homophobic text messages to former sergeant Ian Furminger between 2011 and 2012.  Furminger was convicted on federal corruption charges last December. 

Last fall the San Francisco Police Officers Union released a series of radio commercials striking back against “anti-law enforcement zealots,” a departure from previous ads that focused on the department’s diversity. Critics saw the new campaign as a defensive reaction to racism charges that’ve been levied against SFPD. African American Officers for Justice president Yolanda Williams called the commercials “brash, callous, and inaccurate” and said they demonstrated “a lack of experience in conferring with minorities.” 

According to a 2013 San Francisco District Attorney’s report, African-Americans make up only six percent of the City’s adult population, yet represent 40 percent of people arrested and convicted.  The study also found that Blacks were more than seven times more likely to be arrested than European-Americans.  Another study, conducted by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice and released this May, found that African-American women in San Francisco are thirteen times more likely to be arrested than women of other races.  The study found that the City’s arrest rate of Black women is roughly four times the state average, and has more than tripled since 1980.

Relations between different institutions within the criminal justice system have been strained by District Attorney George Gascon’s zealous crusade to expose corruption within the City’s law enforcement agencies through his Police Corruption Taskforce, which critics within law enforcement claim to be brazen political grandstanding. 

“It should be very clear to all of us that Gascon is politically driven to obtain any higher office on the backs of any organization that he feels that he can unjustly chastise for his own personal gain,” Police Officers Association president Martin Halloran told the San Francisco Examiner last April.

The Taskforce launched investigations into the SFPD and Sheriff’s Department last March.  City prosecutors have pressed charges against Sheriff’s deputies accused of being involved in prisoner fights at San Francisco County Jail. One deputy has been terminated over the incident; three remain under investigation. 

The Taskforce is reviewing more than 3,000 arrests made over the past ten years by SFPD officers implicated in the department’s text message scandal.  Seven criminal cases have been dismissed as a result of the investigation so far.  Relations between Gascon and Police Chief Greg Suhr have been particularly icy, with Suhr publicly stating that Gascon has exceeded his jurisdiction by claiming oversight of both SFPD and the Sheriff’s Department, which is a job Suhr feels should be left to the state’s Attorney General.  Both SFPD and the Sheriff’s Department have opposed Gascon’s investigations, stating that the DA’s office is too entwined with the other law enforcement departments to be objective, and calling for an outside investigation into the issues.

Meanwhile, local media outlets are reporting that the City’s rate of violent and property crimes jumped in 2015.  While the number of violent crimes, such as rape and aggravated assault, has only slightly risen, robbery is up 25 percent.Nonviolent property crimes, such as burglary, auto theft, and arson, have all risen, with arson and theft from vehicles showing the greatest increase, of more than 40 percent, according to a recent KRON4 report. 

SFPD public information officer Carlos Manfredi pointed to a number of factors behind increased crime rates.  “For example, unemployment rates, the realignment in our prison system, which resulted in more nonviolent offenders being released from prisons and placed back in their communities, and the Prop 47 crime initiative, which reclassified a wide range of crimes from felony to misdemeanors, thereby allowing many offenders to remain on the street when they previously would have been taken to county jail,” Manfredi said. 

The successful passage of Garscon-backed Proposition 47 in 2014, which reduced most low level, nonviolent offenses from felonies to misdemeanors, had been opposed by SFPD, which argued that the measure would put criminals back on the street, compromise public safety, and result in increased criminal activity. “Now more than ever we must abandon the one size fits all approach to the criminal justice system, and push the envelope to keep low level, nonviolent offenders – and particularly juveniles – out of the criminal justice system,” Gascon was quoted on the DA’s webpage.

Mayor Ed Lee has echoed SFPD’s suggestion that the best response to the recent crime spike is to put more officers on San Francisco streets. In his fiscal year 2015 budget, Lee approved an extra $20 million for the department, which wants to hire 400 new police officers by the end of this year, though they’re currently 300 officers short of meeting that goal.  According to Manfredi, the department hopes to reach the 1,971 charter mandate by the summer of 2017. Critics argue that the funds that Mayor Lee awarded SFPD could be put to better use if they were channeled into education, housing, and social services.

“Technology has played a big role in exposing the misconduct that was always present.  In the past, our clients’ accounts would be easily dismissed. It was the word of a poor person, often with a criminal record, against that of a sworn police officer. Many of San Francisco’s recent law enforcement scandals came to light because of surveillance footage, citizens capturing video on their smart phones, and text messages recorded between officers. Serious breaches of public trust require more than an investigation by the District Attorney, who relies on the police officers to gather evidence for prosecutors. These investigations, and the improvements they trigger, must come from an independent agency,” Adachi said.

Lee also approved an additional $3 million to fit officers with body cameras.  Meanwhile, the mayor has been criticized by local NAACP chapter president Reverand Amos Brown for denying Gascon’s request for $383,315 to go towards funding his Police Misconduct Taskforce.