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As Crime Goes Up And Arrests Down, Police Blame the DA 

Wednesday, Nov 11 2015
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San Francisco police are the best-paid cops in California. An entry-level officer in San Francisco earns a minimum of $6,782 a month — $1,100 more than the statewide average and $1,500 more than a rookie cop in L.A. (though San Jose police, suffering through the same Bay Area housing crisis, are paid about the same as S.F.'s finest).

For this, credit is due to the Police Officers Association, the SFPD's influential union. Though not a member of the AFL-CIO and thus not a member of the city's Labor Council, the POA is nonetheless one of the city's strongest lobbying bodies and, by its own estimation, possibly the most powerful police union in the United States.

For all that money, for some reason, San Francisco police have less to do lately.

Despite a steady rise in both property and violent crime, police are making fewer and fewer arrests.

According to the most recent police statistics, violent crime is up 10 percent from last year, and property crime is up 21 percent — including a 45 percent increase in auto burglary, when cars are broken into and items stolen.

This year, San Francisco is on track for almost 62,000 "part 1 crimes" — a category that includes violent crimes like homicide and rape as well as burglary and petty theft — up from 42,627 part 1 crimes in 2009.

Arrests, meanwhile, are way down. This year, cops have made an arrest in 10 percent of serious cases, according to statistics, down from 19 percent in 2013.

Things are worst with auto burglary — the method by which the gun that killed Kate Steinle, shot this summer on the Embarcadero, made it onto the streets. Police make arrests in about 2 percent of auto burglary cases, according to District Attorney George Gascón — the man who, according to the POA, is to blame for all this.

Gascón, just reelected to a second term as District Attorney, is a former cop. An assistant chief of the LAPD under legendary police "reformer" Bill Bratton and the former chief of police in Mesa, Arizona, Gascón was SFPD's chief from 2009 to early 2011, before he took over as DA from Kamala Harris.

These days, in the POA's view, he may as well be an ex-con.

"The SFPOA predicted this [crime wave,]" reads a Nov. 5 post on the POA's Facebook page sharing a Los Angeles Times interview with Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell. McDonnell blames the rise in crime on Prop. 47, a voter initiative approved year — whose chief sponsor was Gascón.

Under Prop. 47, most simple drug possession crimes and petty thefts where the goods are valued at under $950 are now misdemeanors, not felonies. This reform has helped reduce California's prison overcrowding — but, according to police, it's made it more difficult to do their jobs.

"Now we are all suffering the consequences," according to the POA.

The POA's leadership is notoriously reactionary — when the city's Board of Supervisors was considering a toothless resolution that would have endorsed the message of the Black Lives Matter movement, former POA head Gary Delagnes fired off an email to Supervisor Malia Cohen, who is black, calling the measure "absolute bull shit" and threatening to never work with her again if she voted in favor — but the anti-Prop. 47 ire appears to have spread throughout the SFPD's rank and file.

In a recent television interview, police spokesman Officer Carlos Manfredi blamed Prop. 47 for a rash of cellphone thefts (which, regardless of the phone's value, would be a felony if stolen from a vehicle or snatched out of a person's hands). This messaging comes straight from SFPD Chief Greg Suhr, as shown in a July article in the POA Journal, the union's official newspaper.

"As you know, property crime is up significantly all over the city — auto and home burglaries in particular," Suhr wrote in his monthly column. "I know much of this can be attributed to legislative changes AB 109 (the program called 'realignment' that sent some state prison inmates to county jails), and Proposition 47."

Neither the SFPD's Media Relations Unit at the department's new $243 million headquarters in Mission Bay nor veteran SFPD Inspector Martin Halloran, the POA's current president, returned multiple calls and emails seeking comment.

But according to a recent study conducted by Stanford University law professor Michael Romano — a Prop. 47 co-author — a total of 18 people in San Francisco have been released from incarceration under Prop. 47 thus far. (Statewide, California's prison population finally dropped below the U.S. Supreme Court-mandated 113,720 inmates — better, but still at 137.5 percent of capacity).

If Suhr's contention were true, it would be a remarkable feat by a few super-criminals.

Gascón is more direct. The contention, he says, "just defies logic."

The real reason may be that lighter penalties under Prop. 47 makes police less willing to make arrests.

After realignment, which went into effect in 2011, crime did indeed increase, thanks to a surge in cell phone thefts. But arrests stayed level at 19 percent before tumbling in the past two years.

The real change in policing in San Francisco may be philosophical.

For years, in the face of the state's notorious prison overcrowding and a change in public attitudes, Suhr's mantra was that police "cannot arrest our way out of this problem." Suhr, a former narc, disbanded the SFPD's narcotics unit, causing drug arrests to plummet. That was in step with Gascón — who, with Prop. 47, may have just pushed police and the POA too far.

Old-school attitudes may be at play. Cops like to make felony busts. They're a bigger deal, and the criminal pays more dearly. Misdemeanors, by contrast, are a joke in cops' eyes — the offender gets a citation and a notice to appear in court and is seen out on the street doing the same thing, maybe even the same day.

"We are seeing significantly reduced police activity," Gascón said recently. "Police culture, by and large, places a great deal of value on felony arrests."

"We're asking them to do things differently," he added, "and we're seeing a lot of resistance to that."

Then again, this is a statistical story — and the SFPD has been bad with numbers for years.

If you ask how many police are on the street, you'll get a different answer depending on who you ask.

According to repeated statements from Suhr to Mayor Ed Lee and the Board of Supervisors, SFPD is 300 officers below a charter-mandated minimum staffing level of 1,971. That means there are about 1,671 cops patrolling the streets. (And it is true that as the city's population has swelled to record levels, the police force has shrunk.)

But according to the POA Journal, there are 1,851 officers on the street. A recent Controller report pegged the police force at 1,960 sworn cops — but the figures that SFPD presents to the FBI and to its CompStat unit assert the SFPD has 2,217 sworn officers.

(That number includes the cops confined to desk duty for health or disciplinary reasons; suggesting that the city could have as many as 500 of the state's best-paid officers sitting behind desks. For comparison's sake, Oakland has 735 police officers total.)

And if you want to know how bad — or good — crime is in the city, you can get multiple answers.

In 2009, at Gascón's insistence, SFPD instituted the CompStat system, a fancy name for using a tool called a "computer" to track and monitor crime statistics (this is after all a department where all officers did not have e-mail addresses until 2011). In 2010, CompStat showed a brief spike in violent crime. But the gold standard for measuring crime in America is the FBI's "Uniform Crime Report." And SFPD data reported to the FBI showed in 2010 a decline in violent crime at the same time CompStat showed a spike. A subsequent city Controller review showed that CompStat data was "prone to error" thanks to poor training, staff turnover, and "human error" when handwritten stats were put into computer.

In his July message to officers, Suhr wrote that "[w]e must continue doing our job regardless of how our arrests are being adjudicated 'downstream.'"

"With most thefts now classified as misdemeanors, we need to make certain those arrests are meaningful," he wrote. "We need to make sure our felony and misdemeanor investigations are as comprehensive as possible."

A good start might be to make those arrests at all.


About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has spent most of his adult life working in San Francisco news media, which is to say he's still a teenager in Middle American years. He has covered marijuana, drug policy, and politics for SF Weekly since 2009.

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