Thanks to dedicated public pressure and a 17-day hunger strike, San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) Chief Greg Suhr finally resigned. However, the fight is not over since tackling police brutality entails more than just changing heads of police departments.
Despite its reputation as a citadel of progressivism, weirdos and outside-the-box thinking, San Francisco has long had issues with retrograde and systemic racism. When the late author and intellectual James Baldwin went to San Francisco in 1963 to investigate the plight of African-Americans in San Francisco for his KQED film, “Take This Hammer,” he said: “There is no moral distance … between the facts of life in San Francisco and the facts of life in Birmingham.” In the film’s first scene, one Black resident explained, “The South is not half as bad as San Francisco … I’ll tell you about San Francisco. The white man, he’s not taking advantage of you out in public, like they’re doing down in Birmingham, but he’s killing you with that pencil and paper, brother!”
Fifty years later, very little has changed in this regard. While kicking out Chief Suhr is a victory, he is one part of a larger racist justice system that needs to be uprooted.
Suhr’s resignation, at Mayor Ed Lee’s request, came immediately after the SFPD fatally shot an unarmed, 29-year-old Black woman named Jessica Williams in the predominantly African-American neighborhood of Bayview. Williams was shot in a car, which police claim was stolen. There was no weapon found in the car, however, nor any indication that she drove the car toward officers.
Before Williams, in March 2014, there was Alex Nieto, a 28-year-old Latino man fatally shot by SFPD in Bernal Heights after a few passersby in the park (employees in the tech industry) called 911 thinking he was an armed gang member. He was a security guard with a taser for his job who got startled by someone’s dog as he ate sunflower seeds. Police fired 59 shots at Nieto.
Then, in February 2015, there was Amilcar Perez-Lopez. A 20-year-old undocumented immigrant from Guatemala, Perez-Lopez was fatally shot in the back by two plainclothes San Francisco police officers in the Mission District while trying to retrieve his cell phone from a cyclist who stole it. Police, apparently, mistook Perez-Lopez for the suspect and killed him.
On December 2, 2015, five SFPD officers killed Mario Woods, a 26-year-old Black man, with a hail of nearly two dozen bullets, as if he’d faced a firing squad. SFPD Chief Greg Suhr claimed that officers killed Woods in self-defense because he pointed a knife at them. However, a KQED analysis of a witness video revealed the first shot was fired before Woods extended his arm.
After that, in April 2016, the SFPD killed Luis Gongora, a 45-year-old homeless man from Mexico. Police claimed Gongora lunged at them with a knife but several witnesses dispute this, saying he never lunged and was never a threat.
Contrast SFPD’s behavior with how British police handled a knife-wielding suspect who allegedly stabbed three people in a London subway: rather fire a bunch of bullets, they tasered and arrested the man. There are other instances of British police successfully subduing knife-wielding suspects without killing them.
According to the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, San Francisco police killed 102 people between 1985 and 2016. Of those killed, 69 percent were people of color and 38 percent were Black. In 2015, police killed 1,145 people throughout the United States and 211 in California alone, according to The Guardian.
San Francisco’s Black population is less than 6 percent, yet Black people are disproportionately arrested and incarcerated. In 2014, Black inmates made up half of San Francisco’s jail population and nonwhites, overall, were 70 percent. That same year, according to California Department of Justice data, of the 8,710 misdemeanor arrests made in San Francisco, 3,273—almost 38 percent—were of Black people.
In traffic court, according to a report by the civil legal aid group Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area (LCCR), from 2013 to 2015, Black people constituted 48.7 percent of failure to appear or pay arrests (out of 855) and 45.4 percent for driving with a suspended license (out of 9,312). Those arrests typically occurred in low-income and impoverished areas, such as the Mission District, the Tenderloin, and Bayview-Hunters Point. This keeps people in a cycle of debt and poverty because these arrests continually rack up fees that low-income people cannot afford. Meanwhile, having a driver’s license is important for transportation and required for some jobs.
Recently, a three-judge blue ribbon panel created by San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón to investigate racial bias within SFPD found a number of problems within the police department, including bias and favoritism in hiring practices, lack of transparency on internal discipline and data collection on officer use of force, and “stop and frisk” practices, particularly of Black and Latino individuals. As evidenced in New York City, not only is stop-and-frisk a form of racial profiling, it is also violatespeople’s civil liberties and human dignity and mostly snatches people who have no weapons.
In 2015 alone, SFPD has had over two dozen notorious scandals, including beating up homeless people and, in one instance, 14 cops ganging up on and violently arresting a homeless Black man who had two prosthetic legs.
SFPD is also full of blatantly racist thugs, as evidenced by publicly-released text messages and statements of numerous officers. and other statements. Some texts included KKK-esque statements like “All niggers must fucking hang”; “White Power”; “Cross burning lowers blood pressure! I did the test myself!”; “I hate that beaner but I think the nig is worse”; “Burn down walgreens and kill the bums”; and when one police officer said he “just boarded the train at Mission/16th” (a gentrifying area with heavy police patrols), another replied, “Ok, watch out for BM’s” [black males].
One former police officer who served in the Bayview Station—Sgt. Lawrence Kempinski—allegedly made racist remarks in front of other officers, including saying that he transferred to Bayview to “kill niggers.” In early February, two employees reported him and, last month, Police Chief Greg Suhr suspended Kempinski and recommended to a police commission that he face discipline, including possible termination.
One would think these statements would come from the mouth of a KKK member or Donald Trump supporter but, nope, they’re from SFPD.
None of this should come as a surprise, however. American policing traces its roots to slavery. To prevent rebellions, runaways, and preserve the system of slavery, armed slave patrols would monitor, search (in a manner similar to stop-and-frisk), arrest, brutalize, and terrorize runaway Black slaves and even free Black Africans. After slavery ended, the remnants of slave patrols continued their practices and formed police agencies and vigilante groups like the Ku Klux Klan. In the North, police departments were created to quell strikes, riots, and protests by working-class people disenchanted with their economic conditions during the rise of industrialization. Since its inception, the main function of American policing has been social control of people unfairly perceived as dangerous or violent, particularly people of color and the homeless; suppressing labor uprisings; and, overall, maintaining social order—an order predicated on inequality.
SFPD’s violence and racism are not a result of who is police chief but, rather, a product of the system itself. Police are not the only part of the problem, either. Judges, lawyers, and the courts play major roles in perpetuating institutional racism within the criminal legal system. Preventing police killings and eliminating institutional racism requires far more than just changing the head of a police department.
Adam Hudson is a writer based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter: @AdamHudson5