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How Punitive and Racist Policing Enforces Gentrification in San Francisco

Gentrification of cities isn’t just caused by rich people moving in. In San Francisco, the police help.

A protester holds a sign during a Black Lives Matter protest on the steps of the San Francisco City Hall building, April 14, 2015. (Photo: Adam Hudson)

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Stories about gentrification typically revolve around a certain set of characters – landlords, developers, speculators, tenants facing eviction, long-time residents and rich newcomers. But there is another set of characters typically left out – police and the criminal legal system. In fact, the agency that physically enforces evictions is the Sheriff’s Department. San Francisco represents a case study in how punitive and racist police practices enforce gentrification.

One metric that highlights this phenomenon is the growing number of 311 calls – nonemergency calls for “quality of life” problems like graffiti or dirty sidewalks – since the latest tech-driven wave of gentrification hit San Francisco. The Anti-Eviction Mapping Project recently released a study showing that 311 calls have grown significantly from 2009 to 2014. In particular, 311 calls increased exponentially in San Francisco’s heavily-gentrified areas – the Mission District, Downtown/Civic Center and South of Market. In the Mission, alone, 311 calls increased 291 percent from 9,946 in 2009 to 28,950 in 2014.

Erin McElroy, founder of the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, explained to Truthout why the Project decided to map 311 reports: “We were already mapping quality-of-life crimes reported to the police, but realized that a lot of things weren’t reported because instead of calling 911, people called 311. And it just seemed like a good place to start, in terms of being able to look at quality-of-life crimes or issues.” They gathered the data from the San Francisco 311 website and then mapped and geolocated the reports.

“As public defenders, we see many instances of professionals in gentrifying neighborhoods (such as SOMA and the Mission) calling the police when they suspect (sometimes incorrectly) that a petty crime is occurring.

311 was created to divert nonemergency calls from 911. In New York City, after former Mayor Michael Bloomberg was elected in 2002, he introduced and expanded the use of 311 in that city. The use 311 quickly expanded to other cities. Currently, there are more than 300 cities with 311 call systems.

In 2000, 311 was introduced to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Seven years later, in 2007, the 311 call system was publicly launched by then-Mayor Gavin Newsom and City Administrator Ed Lee. It incorporated online services in 2008 and Twitter in 2009. In 2013, Mayor Ed Lee launched Open311 Platform, an official 311 mobile app for people’s smartphones.

According to the Office of the Mayor,” The new SF311 app for residents and visitors to San Francisco allows users to quickly and easily report quality of life issues by sending pictures, a brief description and a map-based location. Whether reporting issues such as graffiti, potholes or street cleaning, the City’s new SF311 app simplifies and streamlines the process, ensuring it routes directly to the appropriate servicing agency for quicker response time.” Social media can also be used to report issues.

And so, nowadays, not only can people call 311, they can email, send a tweet or use their mobile app to report a nonemergency, quality-of-life problems. McElroy told Truthout,” I think the most interesting thing, in terms of who’s making the call, would be what format they’re using to make the call.” She added,” I don’t know for sure but I wonder how many people are using these apps that are part of the tech industry. Maybe they’re working for Twitter or something and reporting the kinds of ‘garbage’ in the area. So I think that there probably is some correlation between the mechanisms that people can use.”

Cracking down on petty offenses has little to no effect on preventing serious crimes. What it does do, however, is criminalize certain already-marginalized groups of people.

Over half of 311 calls made in San Francisco have to do with street and sidewalk cleaning and graffiti. Of the more than one million 311 calls, 402,184 were about street and sidewalk cleaning, 109,999 were for graffiti on public property and 94,619 for graffiti on private property.

The data does not parse out who makes the 311 calls and who is reported on. Given the scale of displacement occurring in San Francisco and the increased number of 311 calls, many argue that it is typically well-to-do newcomers making the calls on poor, working-class and homeless people in the area.

San Francisco public defender Peter Santina, told Truthout,” As public defenders, we see many instances of professionals in gentrifying neighborhoods (such as SOMA and the Mission) calling the police when they suspect (sometimes incorrectly) that a petty crime is occurring. The professionals often demand police attention and often receive it; I would be surprised if gentrification did not result in increased policing. For example, many murders in SF occur in the traditionally African American neighborhood of Bayview, but the murder cases you see in court (i.e., where an arrest was made and someone was charged) are often from other parts of the City.”

It is also possible that long-time residents call 311 to report on rowdy behavior, such as rich newcomers drinking in public. But, again, the data does not parse this out. And, as McElroy noted,” 311 is advertised in certain networks and, maybe, less so in other networks. And I think that people who have good reason not to trust the police are less likely to call the police or 311.” For example, at a recent event on how police violence impacts families in Oakland, Angela Naggie, whose 26-year-old son O’Shaine Evans was fatally shot by SFPD last October, said she no longer trusts the police after her son was killed. “I can’t be friends with these police. I cannot be friends, I cannot sit across the table from them,” she said. “There’s too much anger inside of me right now.”

Racism and the Totalitarianism of Broken Windows Theory

311 calls are part of “order-maintenance policing,” which has been embraced by numerous police departments across the country – including the San Francisco Police Department. Order-maintenance policing emphasizes cracking down on low-level offenses, like loitering or graffiti, to preserve public order and deter bigger and more serious crimes. This rests on the “broken windows” theory, first advanced by social scientists James Wilson and George Kelling in a 1982 Atlantic article. The theory posits that if a broken window in a building is not repaired, then that invites more window-breaking, along with looting – property damage which provides a safe haven for criminals. Wilson and Kelling write,” Disorder and crime are usually inextricably linked, in a kind of developmental sequence … one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing.” In essence, the broken windows theory argues that any sign of public disorder invites lawless elements into the area and creates a breeding ground for more serious crimes to occur.

Crimes committed by Whites are underreported or spun differently by the press.

Hence, punitive “quality of life” and “zero tolerance” policies have become the norm for many police departments. In 2013, the SFPD made 19,069 arrests, more than half of which were for misdemeanors. Most of the misdemeanor arrests were for public drunkenness, traffic violations or other small offenses.

However, there is little empirical evidence suggesting that the broken windows theory of policing is effective. Cracking down on petty offenses has little to no effect on preventing serious crimes. What it does do, however, is criminalize certain already-marginalized groups of people.

Underpinning that theory (particularly the rhetoric in Wilson and Kelling’s piece) is the assumption that the world can be neatly divided into two groups of people – law-abiding people who want to live in peace on one hand and lawless people who ruin the environment on the other. But perceptions of who is “law-abiding” and who is “lawless” are highly influenced by race and class.

Professor Dorothy Roberts explained this in an article for the Spring 1999 issue of the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminality:

“One of the main tests in American culture for distinguishing law-abiding from lawless people is their race. Many, if not most, Americans believe that Black people are ‘prone to violence’ and make race-based assessments of the danger posed by strangers they encounter. The myth of Black criminality is part of a belief system deeply embedded in American culture that is premised on the superiority of whites and inferiority of Blacks…Psychological studies show a substantially greater rate of error in cross-racial identifications when the witness is white and the suspect is Black. White witnesses disproportionately misidentify Blacks because they expect to see Black criminals.”

Numerous studies have shown that many Americans, particularly White Americans, associate Black people with criminality and violence, even though crime is committed by all races. Inaccurate news and media bias perpetuate the myth that Blacks and Latinos are more prone to criminal behavior. A joint Media Matters of America and Color of Change study found that “every major network affiliate station in New York [City] is consistently over-representing Black people as perpetrators of crime. They are unfairly and disproportionately focusing their crime reporting on Black suspects, and inaccurately exaggerating the proportion of Black people involved in crime – on average, exaggerating by 24 percentage points.” On the flip side, crimes committed by Whites are underreported or spun differently by the press. When mass murders are carried out by White men, White people are not collectively blamed, nor are they profiled for the crimes of those individuals.

Even though most crime is intra-racial, the media typically portrays “a world overrepresented by black, male offenders and white, female victims.

This exemplifies not just New York City’s media coverage of crime, but that of the national press, as well. A study by the Sentencing Project points out that the media both exaggerate how much crime is occurring and perpetuate the stereotype that Blacks and Latinos are more prone to criminal activity. The study notes,” Media crime coverage not only increases the salience of crime, it also distorts the public’s sense of who commits crime and triggers biased reactions. By over-representing whites as victims of crimes perpetrated by people of color, crime news delivers a double blow to white audiences’ potential for empathetic understanding of racial minorities. This focus at once exaggerates black crime while downplaying black victimization.” Even though most crime is intra-racial, the media typically portrays “a world overrepresented by black, male offenders and white, female victims.”

Moreover, the FBI’s national database on crime statistics focuses on street crime but largely leaves out crimes and transgression committed by the wealthy, multinational corporations and the government – including torture, aggressive war, economic plunder and human rights abuses. Whites who associate Blacks and Latinos with criminality are more likely to support punitive policies like the death penalty and mandatory minimum sentencing, according to the Sentencing Project study. That same study found that Whites overestimate how much crime that Blacks and Latinos commit. On top of that, a Stanford University study found that Whites are more likely to support harsher criminal justice policies if they are presented with evidence that such policies disproportionately targets Black people.

The broken windows theory is also a recipe for a police state. Its emphasis on harshly cracking down on petty offenses to maintain “order” can erode basic civil liberties, such as the right against unwarranted searches. As Santina told Truthout:

“I think the broken windows theory does not function as a real social theory, in the sense of an academic hypothesis, but instead is an ideological justification for the otherwise unthinkable: a police state. Making everything illegal sounds like a great idea to middle class white people who will not go to jail for it, but it is totalitarian in its result. The law enforcement budget required to truly regulate society that way would be infinite.”

The broken windows theory does not function as a real social theory, in the sense of an academic hypothesis, but instead is an ideological justification for the otherwise unthinkable: a police state.

As a public defender, he and other defenders regularly see,” Police heavily crack down on petty crimes – but it is primarily to have a legal justification to search people. So my clients are stopped for things like jaywalking, hanging a scented ‘tree’ on their rear-view mirror or having a burned out license plate light, all of which the police couldn’t care less about in San Francisco. They just want to get inside someone’s pockets or car.”

Most people obviously want to live in an area free of broken glass, loud drunk people and graffiti everywhere. But as Santina points out,” The fact that politicians believe that jailing poor folks is the answer to quality of life issues should tell us all we need to know about how deeply they care about poor communities.”

Racism in San Francisco’s Judicial System

The SFPD has recently come under fire for blatant racism within its department. Last month, federal court documents disclosed that over a dozen SFPD officers sent numerous racist and homophobic texts to each other. Some of the texts said “Its [sic] worth every penny to live here [Walnut Creek] away from the savages,” “White power,” “All niggers must fucking hang,” “Cross burning lowers blood pressure! I did the test myself!” and one text – in response another text saying “Just boarded train at Mission/16th” (an area experiencing gentrification and a new police patrols) – said “Ok, just watch out for BM’s” [black males]. Seven officers were suspended, another resigned, and SFPD Chief Greg Suhr – who called the texts “reprehensible” and “hateful” – fired eight of the involved officers. Rather than an isolated incident, the racist text scandal exemplifies SFPD’s institutionalized racism.

An undercover informant shooed away an Asian would-be seller in favor of recording a sale from a black woman.

Even though Black people make up 6 percent of San Francisco’s population (down from 13 percent in 1970), they are disproportionately arrested and punished by the city’s criminal justice system. Black people constitute 56 percent of San Francisco’s jail population.From 2009 to 2014, 47 percent of people arrested by San Francisco police were Black, according to an analysis of SFPD statistics presented at City Hall. Black people in San Francisco also constitute 53 percent of drug arrests and 62 percent of juvenile arrests.

In 2013, of the 10,130 people arrested for misdemeanors in San Francisco, 3,746 – over a third – of them were Black, according to data from the California Department of Justice. That same year, Black people constituted 609 – less than half – of the 1,317 people arrested on felony drug offenses.

This was particularly apparent in Operation Safe Schools, an effort to crack down on drug dealing near schools in the Tenderloin in 2013 and 2014. The effort was carried out by the SFPD, Drug Enforcement Administration and US Attorney’s Office. Undercover informants busted dozens of drug dealers – nearly all of whom dealt small amounts of crack cocaine, heroin or Oxycontin – in a series of sting operations where offenders were caught selling drugs to the informants. The stings arrested 37 people who were then indicted on federal drug offenses. However, court filings by federal public defenders show that all 37 of those were arrested were Black.

“You can also illegally search a homeless person of any race without any worry that it will come back to you.”

In one instance, SF Weekly reported, that an “undercover informant shooed away an Asian would-be seller in favor of recording a sale from a black woman. The informant, who waited until the black woman was off the phone to buy her drugs, later said that he was avoiding the ‘Asian chick’ in order to get the ‘good shit,’ according to court documents.”

San Francisco police also disproportionately kill people of color, particularly Black people. From 1985 to this year, SFPD have killed 95 people, according to data from the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project. Of those killed, 70 percent were people of color and 40 percent were Black.

Recently, two plainclothes cops shot and killed Amilcar Perez-López, a 21-year-old Guatemalan, in the Mission District. Police claimed that Lopez was armed with a knife and chasing a man in order to steal his bicycle. However, witnesses provided a different account. According to Mission Local,” One of his roommates, who declined to give his name, said López was on the street when a person known to the area took his cellphone and took off on a bicycle. López went into his house to get a knife to recover his phone.” It was then that the two cops showed up, tried to stop López, but ultimately killed him.

Residents say that the park used to be much cleaner until the yuppies trashed it.

SFPD’s racism may surprise many people since the department – much like the city – has a reputation for being “friendly” and more liberal. But that’s because the department focuses its aggression on marginalized communities, who are often out of sight and out of mind for many upper-middle-class liberals who live in San Francisco. Santina told Truthout that his clients “have experienced a great deal of hostility, aggression and brutality at the hands of the SFPD,” including “bruises and lacerations inflicted by police officers” and “non-physical aggressions.” He explained:

“For example, I had a client who told me that as a young boy, he would be walking to and from elementary school and a senior Gang Task Force officer would often pop up and walk close to him, asking him questions about his family members and neighbors. He felt like he was being stalked. As another example, many clients have experienced officers threatening to arrest or harm their spouses, parents or children, trying to use that threat to pressure the client in some way.”

Class also plays into police targeting. According to Santina,” You can also illegally search a homeless person of any race without any worry that it will come back to you. A poor person of any race on the street in the TL [Tenderloin] has virtually no enforceable right against search/seizure. It’s also easy. It’s much easier to arrest people for drugs in public who are too poor to buy and sell their drugs indoors or get a prescription and buy from the pharmacy (or own a pharmaceutical company or Walgreens).”

Adding to that, San Francisco has a sit-lie law that forbids anyone from sitting or lying down on a public sidewalks between 7:00 am and 11:00 pm. This effectively criminalizes homelessness since many homeless people sit, sleep and lie down on sidewalks due to the simple fact that they have no homes. The United Nations criticized the law for its mistreatment and criminalization of homeless people.

Many San Francisco residents have highlighted the racial double-standards in SFPD’s policing, particularly when it comes to petty offenses. Dolores Park, which lies in the middle of the Mission District, has recently been overrun by well-to-do, yuppie newcomers who frequently drink and trash the park. This has sparked numerous complaints by residents who say that the park used to be much cleaner until the yuppies trashed it.

Others have pointed out that if it were Black and Latino residents doing the same things – drinking, smoking weed, trashing the park – they would be arrested by the police. But since it’s predominantly White, well-to-do hipsters drinking and partying, the police are far more lenient. At a recent protest at City Hall against systemic racism and police violence in San Francisco, native San Franciscan Roberto Hernandez echoed the sentiments of many in the crowd when he said,” 8,000 Latinos have been evicted from Envara La Mision, while 6,000 White techies have moved in. These 6,000 White techies have the privilege of going to Dolores Park, drinking wine, drinking beer, smoking weed, and the police never fucks with them.”

Racist and punitive policing facilitates gentrification. One of the more concrete examples of this is the Clean Up The Plaza campaign, which calls for “cleaning up” the 16th and Mission Street intersection that a lot of poor and homeless people frequent – giving the impression that the people in the area are “trash.” The thinly veiled classist and racist campaign has amounted to regular police patrols in the area. Around the same time the campaign appeared, it was announced that the intersection would be the site of a big housing development by Maximus Real Estate Partners. Local independent reporters soon discovered that Jack Davis, a long-time developer-connected political consultant, is simultaneously assisting the Clean Up The Plaza campaign and working as a paid consultant for the Maximus condo project.

Landlords, developers and speculators work in tandem with police to effectively kick out marginalized communities, both through direct strategies and by making them feel unwelcome. By harshly cracking down on petty offenses, enforcing evictions and disproportionately incarcerating and killing people of color, the criminal legal system fuels gentrification.