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Operation "Safe from Black People" 

Wednesday, Feb 24 2016
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On Dec. 5, 2014, San Francisco police were on the corner of Hyde Street and Golden Gate Avenue in the Tenderloin, arresting crack sellers. It was a busy day: Shortly after busting one man for selling a few rocks to an undercover police officer, a cop returned to the scene of the crime to gather data to fill out his report when he witnessed another drug deal in action. The cop busted that seller, who identified himself to police as "a Sureño from the south side," according to court records. Police later found that both sellers had extensive rap sheets for narcotic sales.

The pair were two of the 1,050 people arrested on felony drug charges in San Francisco that year, according to data on file with the state Department of Justice. That figure represents an astronomical drop of 85 percent since 2008, when there were 7,521 felony busts. That's good news for the increasingly numerous opponents of America's drug war. Less good for social justice warriors is the fact that of the 1,050 drug busts, 405 netted a black suspect. (Thanks to a quirk in the SFPD's antiquated record-keeping system, the number of Latino arrestees is unknown.)

Most of those busts ended up with the Sureño in local court. Ballot initiatives like Prop. 47 and legislation like the state prison realignment now steer most nonviolent drug offenders to diversion programs and treatment rather than behind bars. But there are three dozen notable exceptions.

Since 2013, a joint San Francisco police and federal Drug Enforcement Administration task force has arrested 37 people for selling drugs in the Tenderloin within 1,000 feet of a school. These suspects have all been charged in federal court, where state leniency does not apply, but mandatory minimums do. Federal "tough-on-crime" drug laws, first passed by Congress under Ronald Reagan and later tightened in Bill Clinton's 1994 omnibus crime bill — the same bill heavily supported by current presidential candidate Hillary Clinton — guarantee at least a year behind bars for selling a crack rock. And all 37 people, SF Weekly and other outlets have reported before, are black.

Most of the defendants are seeking to have their cases thrown out on the basis of selective enforcement and prosecution. But it wasn't clear just how selective police were being when picking who to arrest and charge in federal court until the release of a unique study that quantified who, exactly, is selling drugs in the Tenderloin.

For seven weeks starting in August, participants in the S.F. AIDS Foundation's weekly needle exchange program on Eddy Street were asked to take a survey that asked them what drug they most recently bought, where they got it, from whom they bought it — and what color their drug dealer's skin was.

And according to the survey results, of the 440 drug transactions on which data was provided, 56 percent involved a black drug seller. Some 20.2 percent of drug sellers were Latino, and 16 percent were white. Asians and "others" made up the remaining 5.9 percent.

Researcher Katherine Beckett, a law professor at the University of Washington, went a step further. After crunching arrest data, she found — not surprisingly — that 61.4 percent of the people arrested and charged for drug sales in San Francisco Superior Court from 2013 to the present are black, 24.7 percent were Latino, and 10.7 percent were white – meaning, at least according to this small sample size, that blacks and Latinos are overrepresented in local drug arrests and whites are underrepresented.

"It's clear from this very smart research that there is racial bias at work here," said Laura Thomas, deputy state director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "The fact that everyone arrested is African American is not due to chance, but due to underlying structural forces — namely, racism and white supremacy."

(Beckett declined to comment, citing the preference of the local Federal Public Defender, who is handling the defense of the 37 suspects. The Public Defender has not responded to repeated requests for comment from SF Weekly.)

Empirically, the situation in the Tenderloin appears about as clear an example of police bias as you could concoct. The Sureño was not sent to federal court, but the black repeat offenders were.

Lately, police bias is much on the minds and lips of city officials. Following the Dec. 2 fatal police shooting of Mario Woods and the revelation that 14 San Francisco police officers exchanged text messages so racist and homophobic that the San Francisco Chronicle couldn't print them in full, SFPD Chief Greg Suhr has repeatedly said that his officers will undergo extra training to address and solve racial bias. And District Attorney George Gascón has used bias — and Suhr's failure to fix it — as a ready tool to bash the SFPD. Neither SFPD nor Gascón's office would comment on the study's findings — though Suhr has in the past defended the arrests.

Nor are city officials commenting on the greater implications. It's not by accident that most of the drug dealers in the Tenderloin are black. The Tenderloin is where San Francisco herds its black people. According to 2010 Census figures, 15 percent of the city's estimated 48,000 black people live in supervisorial District 6, comprised of SoMa, the Mission District around 16th Street, and the Tenderloin. That was up from 10 percent in 2000.

Black people are moving there for a variety of reasons, none of them especially great. The T.L. is full of halfway houses, SROs, and affordable housing. Residents are generally poor — and in America, a great way to become poor and stay poor is to be busted for a drug offense while young. And as the data shows, a great way to cop a life-disrupting drug charge is to be black.

Mayor Ed Lee's office also did not respond to a request for comment for this story. Acting United States Attorney Brian Stretch's office is due to respond to the study early next month and explain itself.

Woods's shooting shocked Lee, Suhr, and others into action. But meanwhile, the racist drug war continues right around them, as if it didn't exist.


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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