Neighborhood organizers stood in a circle with police officers and city workers Wednesday night as sage smoke wafted through the auditorium of the Women’s Building. They performed a ritual honoring the four directions, set some ground rules for discussion, then moved on to discuss a pressing issue: how to address neighborhood-specific problems with San Francisco’s justice system, as laid out by a report from the Burns Institute.
The report, released in June 2015, revealed disproportional representation of black adults at all levels of the city’s justice system. On Wednesday, many suggested that the answer might lie in improving relations between police officers and citizens.
In eight small groups, Mission residents, organizers, officers and city workers brainstormed the impact of ethnic and racial disparities in the justice system and how the neighborhood might address it.
Several strengths and actions, as well as several current problems, arose during discussions at each table. While “community” was the most frequently cited strength, many called for training at all levels of the criminal justice system, particularly for police.
“Everybody knows each other…organizations work together,” said Jasmine Muray-Thomas.
According to many at the meeting, the Mission has several people and organizations, including nonprofits, capable of addressing or already solving issues like the ones raised at Wednesday’s meeting.
“We have those models in place,” said one attendee, who did not feel safe having her name reported for fear of law enforcement retaliation. “We don’t need to reinvent the wheel.”
Many proposed solutions involved the police and community members having what Murray-Thomas called “normal human interactions.”
“You’re throwing dirty looks at us and you don’t even know us,” said Murray-Thomas on behalf of her table, saying that many police officers are new to San Francisco and don’t identify with the people they serve.
A similar lack of interaction between city officials and community members featured in discussion of problems and solutions. The meeting called for local politicians to interact directly with the community and to be open to community feedback.
“They’re having all these meetings that nobody’s aware of,” said Murray-Thomas, resulting in decisions contradictory to San Franciscans’ desires.
Training on culture and implicit bias was also a popular solution.
“Make sure they’re tested on it, to make sure they take it seriously,” said Jess Rodriguez Williams of Transitional Aged Youth of San Francisco, Larkin Street Youth Advisory Board, and Young Women’s Freedom Center in a summary of one table’s discussion.
A police officer in attendance, speaking for his table, recommended psychological evaluation for bias as well as cultural awareness and training at all levels of the justice system.
According to the Burns report, “While Black adults represent 6% of the adult population, they represent 40% of people arrested, 44% of people booked in County Jail, and 40% of people convicted…Black adults are 7.1 times as likely as White adults to be arrested, 11 times as likely to be booked into County Jail, and 10.3 times as likely to be convicted of a crime in San Francisco.”
The report also points to insufficient or inaccurate data, particularly in the classification of many Latinos as white. This means that the disparity between whites and blacks is even greater than the report indicates, and that discrimination against Latinos may often go undocumented.
With gentrification, said the anonymous attendeee, “people call police for every little thing” because they don’t understand the district’s youth and culture. “There’s plenty of nonprofits and organizations that could train these police officers,” she said.
Some had the opposite concern – they said community members do not reach out to police when they are in danger.
Murray-Thomas urged people to report unjust harassment by police. “The more reports that go in, the more that something will be done,” she said.
The reluctance to call police stems from fear, said some at the meeting.
“You call the police, you don’t know how they’re gonna respond,” said the anonymous attendee.
“How do you turn to somebody you don’t trust?” said Joseph Calderon, a community health worker for the Transitions Clinic Network.
“That… grows into a forest of issues,” added Freda Glenn, a child support services worker with the city. She noted Calderon’s personal story of facing police harassment in adolescence, saying that people like Calderon will pass mistrust of police on to their own children.
The impact of ethnic discrimination on youth featured in the conversation.
“We see the effect that it has on black and brown communities,” said Amika Sergejev of the Young Women’s Freedom Center. She also pointed out the effects of a local gang injunction made permanent in 2008, saying it resulted in “removing youth from the community.”
Others spoke of the impact that incarceration has on spouses and loved ones.
“When one person does time, the family does time,” said Marlene Sanchez, the associate director of Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice and a meeting facilitator.
District 9 supervisorial candidate Edwin Lindo took a broader view: He wanted to know “why we have the criminal justice system in the first place.”
“You have prisoners that are essentially free labor,” he said. Although he conceded that this issue belonged to a larger conversation, he proposed that forcing businesses to pay minimum wage would lower incarceration rates.
“I feel the meeting went well,” said Jess Rodriguez Williams, who wished that more community members had attended but seemed pleased to see many people from different causes unite. She left curious how the actions proposed would be implemented in a comprehensive way and hoping for more of these meetings.
Two additional meetings are scheduled in the Tenderloin and the Western Addition, though specific details are not immediately available.