Early on a Wednesday morning last July, police converged on a gourmet lemonade stand on Valencia Street and its owner, Vicktor Stevenson.
One police officer, Stevenson said, approached with his hand on his gun. “He looked like he was ready,” Stevenson told Mission Local following the July 17, 2018, incident.
Stevenson, who is black, was ordered to take his hands out of his pockets and show them to the police. He owned the place, he told the officers, and showed them his keys.
Logically, the interaction should have ended there. But officers nonetheless asked him for his identification and checked his background.
The incident went viral and made national news. And, despite the San Francisco Police Department saying that it “responded appropriately” to the situation, Chief Bill Scott has now specifically requested changes to how his officers respond to scenarios like Stevenson’s. The police department calls such situations “bias by proxy” or alerts in which the caller’s bias provokes a call against a person of color acting in a manner that would not elicit suspicion if the person were white.
“Oftentimes, police officers respond to calls for service that are generated based on the implicit biases of the caller,” said Chief Bill Scott in a statement. “These ‘biases by proxy’ can result in disastrous consequences. This is why it is vital to train our officers how to recognize and respond appropriately to this issue.”
It happens more than anyone would like. Only several months before the police showed up at Stevenson’s establishment, Oakland Police responded to a 911 call about an African American family barbecuing at Lake Merritt. Months later, a woman was caught on video calling the police on an African American girl selling water on a San Francisco sidewalk, an incident that earned her the name “Permit Patty.” And this July, a video of a white man calling the police on an African American man waiting for his friend outside of an apartment building made national headlines.
These are only the incidents that have been caught on video or reported by the press. They do not describe the everyday complaints that lead to innocent bystanders, largely people of color, being hassled by police.
How should the police respond to false or ill-informed calls by people who racially profile or harbor bias (hence “by proxy”)? How do officers figure out whether a call is racially driven — or actually suspicious?
It turns out, it’s not that easy. It took more than an hour for two dozen policy wonks, police brass, and community members, sitting in a room at SFPD headquarters Tuesday afternoon, to settle on one draft paragraph that will guide the policy:
“When officers respond to a call for service in which no criminal conduct or well-being check is indicated, an officer should make reasonable efforts to determine whether there is evidence of criminal activity after independently assessing the circumstances. If no suspicious behavior is found or observed, an officer should document their findings … and educated the reportee about distinguishing between criminal, non-criminal, and constitutionally protected.”
While the group ultimately agreed on language that largely leaves engagement to the discretion of an officer, that did not come without heated exchanges over how police decide whether a call has merit.
“It’s hard because we can’t discourage people from calling the police — and if someone makes a 911 call, law enforcement has to respond,” said Police Commission Vice President Damali Taylor. “What I think we’re trying to do here is build into the [policy] enough flexibility that if the call is complete B.S., officers can use their judgment and not make contact.”
SFPD Commander Teresa Ewins, who has led the working group since May, said that in most circumstances it’s important for an officer to make contact with a person a caller thinks is “suspicious.” “Our job is to make [the reportee] feel safe,” she said, explaining that many elderly folks make such calls.
Ewins also worried that a reportee could file complaints against officers who don’t approach someone a caller thinks looks suspicious. “In the end, it’s telling me, ‘if I don’t see criminal activity, I don’t talk to them,’” Ewins said of the policy’s language.
Community member and grassroots organizer Angela Jenkins, who is black, told the group she sometimes experiences bias by proxy. She declined to go into specifics following the meeting, but said she has been “observed” by the police because her “neighbors feel uncomfortable with me.”
But Ewins told Jenkins to look beyond her own experience.
“I’m going to ask you to actually look outside of yourself,” Ewins told Jenkins who was one of only several representatives on the 20-odd-member working group who come from communities of color. Ewins explained that some communities who are “impacted by drugs and gangs” may appreciate police following through on calls.
But Jenkins said she shouldn’t have to “look outside” of her experience: it was her very experience the police were trying to avoid. “The reason we’re on the map here is because of Permit Patty,” she said. “I would have you think that this is the biggest trend that’s going up and has significantly placed San Francisco on the map.”
She challenged Ewins’s notion that making a reportee “feel safe” should be a priority. She described the “psychological damage” and “emotional distress” of being innocent and continually questioned by a cop — even if the cop is being courteous.
We “can’t be collateral damage to keep certain people safe,” she said.
Commissioner Cindy Elias agreed. While she echoed Ewins that callers should be taken care of and be made to feel safe, “it’s also people who aren’t doing anything other than living in their own skin.”
Ewins was resolute. “It’s like you’re telling me not to communicate with the community in San Francisco because of the color of their skin,” Ewins replied.
In the end, the policy that leaves the officers involved making the decision seemed like a compromise, but it is “light years from where we were previously,” Jenkins said. It did strengthen the original 2011 anti-bias policy that included no language about “bias by proxy.”
The inevitable problem is that the data on stops indicates that officers continue to have their own biases. From January to March of this year, African Americans comprised 40 percent of all police searches, despite making up 5.6 percent of the population, compared to whites comprising 26 percent of searches and making up 53 percent of the population.
It’s unclear if the draft language will be approved.
The SFPD’s “Bias-Free Police Policy,” which will replace an anti-bias policy drafted in 2011, will now go to the chief and then a final approval vote by the Police Commission.