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Berkeley Law helps uncover the 'Truth' in San Francisco policing

5 minute read

Officers with the San Francisco Police Department work to close a barricade during a rally and a counter-demonstration at the United Nations Plaza in San Francisco, California, U.S. October 17, 2020. REUTERS/Stephen Lam

San Francisco enjoys a reputation as a bastion of American progressivism, but a recent report from the University of California, Berkeley School of Law shows its police department historically mired in deep racism and violence.

A working paper by the International Human Rights Law Clinic at the law school synthesizes 40 years of research and public information. It's meant to aid the work of the city’s forthcoming Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission, which is being designed to give a voice to people harmed by decades of racist law enforcement and prosecutorial practices.

The report was prepared by clinic students under the direction of Roxanna Altholz, a law professor who has litigated human rights cases in multiple international forums.

The four-decade review largely corroborates the story victims and local activists have told, sometimes shouted, for years in San Francisco – and echoed in other cities: a police department that has dehumanized Black people; laws and leaders that perpetuate impunity for misconduct including unjustified killings; and repeated cycles of piecemeal reform in response to calls for structural change, all of which failed to produce substantial improvements in justice, accountability and daily life.

Notably, the Berkeley report found that data from the San Francisco Police Department shows that neighborhoods city government has targeted for “urban renewal” and gentrification are the same neighborhoods historically subjected to a violent confluence of under-policing and over-policing: murders of mostly Black victims going unsolved, as police aggressively target mostly Black residents for minor offenses.

The patterns detected in the report of gentrification and unconstitutional policing are particularly troubling, Altholz said.

"It also seems to be an effort to transform the neighborhoods, and to put those residents at the behest of a consumer city," she said. (The Black population in San Francisco has declined at a faster rate than any other large city over the last several decades, the report notes.)

San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, who was elected in November 2019, told me he is “tremendously appreciative” that the Berkeley clinic decided independently to share its expertise. He and the top prosecutors in Philadelphia and Boston announced the formation of truth commissions in July 2020, following protests over the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.

The aim of the commission is to uncover past wrongdoing and focus on victims, reconciliation and resolution, rather than punishment.

I asked Boudin what to make of the copious evidence that police and officials – including his office – are largely responsible for blocking structural change and instead perpetuating the cycle of official studies, incremental reform and continuing police brutality.

“It’s not a problem unique to San Francisco,” Boudin said. “It’s shameful the role police and prosecutors have played in perpetuating white supremacy, and I think it’s appropriate for myself, in this position, and for my office to come to terms with our historic responsibility for these problems.”

The Berkeley clinic's report essentially presents an overview of anti-Black police violence in San Francisco. The picture that emerges is damning, if unsurprising.

It’s an excellent resource and a starting point for the commission’s restorative justice work. The clinic’s contribution is also a model for public participation by universities in other cities that might take a similar restorative approach to law enforcement.

Altholz told me she thought it simply made sense to leverage the clinic's intellectual and human resources to contribute to the historic effort. The working paper was prepared by three law students and the process lasted nearly a year. Altholz said she was struck by the "voluminous and detailed record of racialized policing," and the persistence of community organizing.

"Our understanding is the commission will have a much more expansive mandate, but we know anti-Black police violence will be a focus, so we compiled what's out there about police racism or violence to present a cogent narrative," Altholz said.

The report highlights the local activists and families of victims who have been most central in pushing for change, including the organizations Justice 4 Mario Woods, Justice 4 Alex Nieto and Anti-Police Terror Project; and advocacy groups like the Haywood Burns Institute, which is leading development of the truth commission.

Besides the well-documented structural discrimination, the city's Blue Ribbon Panel Probe in 2015-2016 produced some of the best hard evidence of interpersonal racism within the department, according to the Berkeley report. That was the only city-led effort that specifically looked into “institutionalized bias."

Witnesses produced and prepared by the San Francisco Police Officers Association largely incriminated themselves and their colleagues during that investigation. One officer said “with confidence” that there is “no racism in the police department, but there are members who are racist.”

The city human resources manager, who led implicit bias training for SFPD, also testified that his staff concluded the department was rife with racism. “There are individuals on the force who have enjoyed having a career that allows them to patrol, exert power over, and harm Black people,” he said in December 2020.

One former cop even corroborated some community members' belief that the SFPD uses Black neighborhoods to train new officers in aggressive policing.

And yet, no real changes occurred, the Berkeley report found. “With each new revelation about the extent and nature of institutional bias, racial coalitions renew calls for structural change, the city promises to study the phenomenon, recommendations are issued, modest reforms are implemented, and the cycle repeats,” researchers wrote.

The commission and other recent local reforms – including a program to study reparations to address the legacy of racism – are attempts to break that cycle. And the clinic’s report is a model for public contribution.

Opinions expressed here are those of the author. Reuters News, under the Trust Principles, is committed to integrity, independence and freedom from bias.

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Opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the views of Reuters News, which, under the Trust Principles, is committed to integrity, independence, and freedom from bias.

Hassan Kanu writes about access to justice, race, and equality under law. Kanu, who was born in Sierra Leone and grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland, worked in public interest law after graduating from Duke University School of Law. After that, he spent five years reporting on mostly employment law. He lives in Washington, D.C. Reach Kanu at hassan.kanu@thomsonreuters.com

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