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"The San Francisco Way": A City Awash with Nonviolent Offenders 

Wednesday, Feb 11 2015
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Last month, San Francisco Police Department officers were sent an eye-opening internal bulletin regarding a suspect on the loose.

Per the communique, 29-year-old Brad Urmston-Parish was cited and released from Central Station at 850 Bryant for heroin possession and vandalizing a car. After being released, "the suspect burglarized a restaurant 417 feet away from [the station] within an hour," read the report. This was not the work of a master criminal: "The suspect might have been distracted, because he left behind his ID and personal effects contained in an SFPD property bag cops gave him."

So, the police laughed about that one a bit. But, with less humor, the subject line of this message referred to Urmston-Parish as a "Prop. 47 suspect."

In November, nearly 60 percent of Californians voted Prop. 47 into law, shifting a number of crimes formerly categorized as felonies to misdemeanors, and thinning the state's incarcerated population.

On the wall of city police stations is a "Proposition 47 Cheat Sheet," marked "EFFECTIVE IMMEDIATELY (11/05/2014)" — meaning the police began observing the law months before it was formally enacted.

Jail populations are dropping statewide; San Francisco was already on a downward trend, experiencing a 30- to 50-percent vacancy rate even before the new law went into effect (There were only 1,108 prisoners as of Jan. 1, 2015, down from 2,066 as recently as Feb. 1, 2010). Releasing nonviolent offenders is the commonsense desire of reformers everywhere frustrated by mass incarcerations and a criminal justice system disproportionately stocked with low-income minorities. It's also the stated will of a hefty majority of California voters.

But that's cold comfort for the restaurateur whose business was purportedly knocked over by a man summarily released following a crime that formerly would have been a felony booking. The "Cheat Sheet" lists a handful of crimes reclassified as misdemeanors including shoplifting or grand theft of items less than $950 (yes, that includes smartphones) and simple possession of a number of drugs including heroin, cocaine, "concentrated cannabis," meth, and ecstasy.

The downside of releasing petty criminals onto the streets is that there are more petty criminals on the streets. Both SF Weekly and the Examiner have written extensively on the beguiling, inconsistent nature of SFPD crime statistics. But this much is clear: Larcenies, burglaries, robberies, car break-ins and other such crimes are soaring. A veteran cop calls the Proposition 47 Cheat Sheet "the 'reason not to be proactive' list." He and his colleagues are loath to go through a three-hour procedural rigmarole when a suspect will be cited out in 20 minutes. As such, he and others "turn a blind eye" to quality-of-life crimes residents of the city's tonier neighborhoods complain about when they take place on their front steps.

Bypassing three lost hours or a criminal charge, the cop may demand drug paraphernalia from a suspect and simply crush it with his heel. This is illegal, as it constitutes destruction of evidence.

The nickname for this practice: "The San Francisco Way."

For comprehensive statistics regarding San Francisco's jail population see

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

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