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Guilty as Charged: Public Defender Accuses San Francisco of Systemic Racial Bias 

Wednesday, May 6 2015
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Jeff Adachi is San Francisco's Public Defender, but at a justice summit last week he may as well have been prosecuting a case against the city's criminal justice system. His charge? "Despite our liberal reputatation, racial bias in San Francisco is almost as bad as Ferguson."

The spectre of Ferguson and Baltimore — which had just completed its first night under a mandatory curfew enforced in part by the Maryland National Guard — loomed large during Wednesday's summit at the San Francisco Public Library, where the city's idea of its own exceptionalism was challenged again and again.

De'Anthony Jones, a former member of the SF Youth Commission, compared the city's reputation for tolerance to what he learned buying his first car. "I bought the car because it looked good, but then the alternator went out," the 23-year-old native San Franciscan said. "San Francisco's diversity looks good, but parts of the engine are broken."

Adachi built his case against the city's law enforcement system slowly but inexorably. After he presented statistics on the damning racial disparities in the city's arrest and incarceration rates — 47 percent of people arrested by SFPD in the last five years have been black, even though African-Americans make up just 6 percent of the population, for example — attendees heard testimony from several San Franciscans who have seen the ugly side of policing. In addition to Jones, there was Meseka Henry, a Muni driver who was thrown to the ground by police officers during a traffic stop last month; Peretz Partensky, who ended up in solitary confinement after calling 911 to help an injured bicyclist; and SFPD Sgt. Yulanda Williams, who was targeted and demeaned with racist and sexist language in recently revealed text messages exchanged by her fellow SFPD officers.

"I joined what I thought was San Francisco's finest, and it doesn't feel like that today. It doesn't feel like that to minority officers," Williams said. "Because I'm black, I can never be blue enough to you? Shame on you."

The summit promised to "go beyond the scandals and toward solutions," and District Attorney George Gascón, Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, and SFPD Cmdr. Toney Chaplin all had one solution in mind: body cameras. Gascón called for body cameras on every police officer by July 1, 2016. Mirkarimi touted his proposal to put cameras on sheriff's deputies in the county jail system. Chaplin promised, "Body cameras are coming to SFPD, period."

Indeed the next day, Mayor Ed Lee announced that he, too, wanted body cameras on SF cops, and would be requesting funding for their implementation in his next budget.

As for Adachi, cameras are a good start, but not enough. "The larger question is racial disparity in prosecutions," he said after the event. "It's not enough to say we're going to look at it. We need to go beyond that and track outcomes."

About The Author

Julia Carrie Wong

Julia Carrie Wong's work has appeared in numerous local and national titles including 48hills, Salon, In These Times, The Nation, and The New Yorker.

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