DA-elect Chesa Boudin’s difficult balancing act has already begun

In the hours and days after Chesa Boudin’s electoral victory over interim District Attorney Suzy Loftus and others, San Francisco became a dark and violent place. On the Internet.

Enraged by the election of a district attorney with wild ideas about dangerous concepts like “restorative justice,” talk of this city’s transformation into Gotham pervaded the ether — as did unsubtle pining for vigilantism. 

Gotham City, of course, is the fictionalized, comic-book version of New York patrolled by Batman. It’s a realm controlled by sadistic mafia dons and beset by homicidal street gangs and, to boot, besieged by supernatural criminals. 

The original Batmobile was just under 19 feet long — and yet Batman and Robin always found parking. Free parking. 

For that reason alone, Gotham is a poor analog for San Francisco. But there are so many more reasons. Property crime in our real-world city is rampant, and that’s not acceptable — but property crime wasn’t what made Gotham Gotham: Young Bruce Wayne was not set in the path of meting out bloody justice in a bat costume because someone broke into his parents’ car. 

Statistics are cold comfort for anyone victimized by a violent crime — and violent crimes occur every day, in this and every city. But, despite several recent abhorrent acts caught on video, this city is, statistically, home to both fewer victims and fewer violent crimes than at any time in recent memory. 

A lower crime level is not a tolerable crime level. But it is something to think about when formulating policy or reporting on the state of crime in this city — both of which, frankly, are being driven by visible crime rather than underlying trends. 

Chesa Boudin. Photo by Abraham Rodriguez.

Here are the underlying trends: Our overall violent crime rate is now around half of what it was 30 years ago (when, incidentally, Tim Burton’s Batman hit theaters). Police Chief Bill Scott last week reported to the Police Commission that there have been 33 homicides to date this year. Last year at this time there were 40. 

Just a decade ago San Francisco was pushing the century mark in homicides. In the mid-1970s, the city was awash in street violence and serial killers — killers, plural — and routinely suffered 130 or more murders a year (of note, the city’s population in the ’70s was around 80 percent of what it is in the present day).

In 1973, future mayor Art Agnos was shot and left for dead by the Zebra Killers. In 1978, Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk were gunned down in cold blood in City Hall — two of well more than 100 murders that year. Also in ’78, a crazed San Francisco cult leader forced more than 900 of his followers into mass suicide.

Presumably, many cars were broken into and many packages were stolen off porches as well.  

Again, that’s not to say everything is peachy in 2019, but violent crime is down here across the board. We don’t figure into compendiums of the nation’s top 100 violent cities. Pine Bluff, Ark., Albuquerque, N.M., and Kalamazoo, Mich. do though. 

It’s hard to imagine the legal systems are less punitive in these places than here in San Francisco. 

And it’s also hard to imagine angry denizens of the Internet calling for a Dark Knight to swoop down off the rooftops of Kalamazoo and restore order and sanity. 

Broken glass on Folsom Street.

When asked if he’s familiar with the Gotham meme, Boudin’s jaw tightens for a second. But only a second. He is. 

Now, stupid people say stupid things on the Internet often. Stupidly often, even. But this is different. First, addlebrained calls for vigilante justice are the sort of thing that’ll get some small-time thief or random homeless person killed. 

Second, this line of attack is indicative of the inherent obstacles that may yet hamstring the progressive DA-to-be in his ambitious agenda of remaking this city’s criminal justice system.

“It’s frustrating to be blamed for things that happened before I’m even in office,” he says. “People are blaming me for the attack in Portsmouth Square” — a savage Nov. 9 beating of three elderly Chinatown denizens by thus-far at-large assailants that was filmed by a bystander.

“I haven’t had the opportunity to make a single hire or prosecute a single case,” notes Boudin, who will be sworn in on Jan. 8. “And I am absolutely going to continue prosecuting cases. That is my job.” 

Linking Boudin to this attack, he continues, “represents an effort, in advance, to undermine my administration. And that is frustrating because I am acting in good faith.” 

But that’s no surprise. “Chesa Boudin and his ideology will be held responsible for every time there’s a video of a ‘justice-involved individual’ doing something endangering the safety of others,” a longtime city political operative predicted earlier this month.

“I don’t think it will be immediate, but it will be unfairly fast.” 

So, that’s how it’s going to be. The ideology of the district attorneys in Albuquerque or Pine Bluff is probably not questioned every time there’s an abhorrent crime, caught on video, that captures the public’s attention. But that will happen here. Is happening, in fact. 

Chesa Boudin’s overarching plan to move away from using the criminal justice system to address psychiatric- and poverty-based problems will be questioned every time someone returns to a busted car window or package-free porch or has to hop-scotch over drug paraphernalia or human effluvia on the streets or hustle away from a homeless person acting out. 

If police continue to register arrests on a paltry 1.6 percent of car break-ins, the rancor will be directed at Boudin. Why not? It was directed at DA George Gascón before him. The SFPD’s overall arrest rate dropped from 18 percent in 2010 to 10.6 percent in 2017; Boudin cannot prosecute the people the police do not arrest. And it remains to be seen just how hard the cops will work in partnership with the man whose election night party featured an impromptu chant of “Fuck the POA,” the police union — led by elected officials. 

(Incidentally, we’re told that some of these same elected officials have demanded the SFPD come up with “enforcement plans” for their districts regarding visible homelessness and street behavior — but balk at the “criminalization of homelessness.”)

If the police were to arrest every miscreant in sight and, for whatever reason, Boudin opts to not file charges, cops can still shrug and tell themselves they did their part. But Boudin — or any DA — is not privy to a reciprocal arrangement. The DA, again, cannot prosecute the people the police do not arrest. Boudin cannot succeed without the help of the cops. 

And this will loom large if and when he decides to prosecute one in an officer-involved shooting. And if he opts to not prosecute an officer — if, as Boudin notes, “the law as written today doesn’t allow us to prosecute conduct we think should be criminalized” — should he expect patience from the significant portion of his supporters who have monomaniacally elevated the charging of cops to the end-all and be-all of progressive prosecution?

Should he expect understanding from activists focused solely on charging officers — who don’t seem to care as much about the DA addressing cash bail reform or diversion programs or decriminalization of marijuana or the overall dismantling of the carceral state? 

Let me answer that question with a question: You ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight

“We won an election, people,” Chesa Boudin told supporters on election night. And, lo, he was right. Photo by Julian Mark.

Chesa Boudin’s policies and ambitions represent a challenge. For himself, certainly; for the attorneys in his office used to a different paradigm; and for the cops all too often dispatched to deal with homeless and mental health issues — and then maligned for arresting people. 

But the challenge goes deeper. It challenges the very notion of what a DA does and how a DA thinks and talks — Boudin says prosecutions of consensual sex work, for example, hamper the ability to charge pimps and traffickers; communities will have to help figure out “how to effectively zone for certain kinds of behavior and conduct.” We already do this informally, he says. “There are kinds of behavior police tolerate in the Tenderloin that would not be tolerated in any other neighborhood in the city.” 

Considering the heat generated in community discussions about ficus trees, meetings regarding drug-use and prostitution zones could result in spontaneous combustion.   

Well, that sounds like a challenge, all right. And so is this: For Boudin to “succeed,” it will require San Franciscans to accept barometer of success beyond a conviction rate. For this to occur, it would require us, as a city to focus on a litany of outcomes, most of them complex, and none of which receives a fraction of the coverage of a horrific filmed attack on Chinatown seniors. 

“Success” would require the quantifiable lowering of recidivism rates and higher scores on victim satisfaction surveys — and for voters to care about this. It would require us to account for complicated hypothetical contrapositives: all the defendants who aren’t incarcerated merely because of an inability to make cash bail and who don’t lose jobs or housing or custody of their children or have their lives otherwise turned inside-out. 

Additionally, we, as a city, would have to care about rampant racial inequalities and the plight of people like this — after markedly not caring for quite some time.

It’s hard to honestly interpret the will of the voters in an off-year, low-turnout election. Do San Franciscans desire sweeping change? Or did they simply award a campaign that out-hustled its opponents? 

Regardless, elections have consequences. And Boudin has plans. 

“I understand that people don’t necessarily agree with  my policies,” he said. “That’s okay. We don’t need to agree all the time as long as everyone acts in good faith — but I would appreciate the benefit of the doubt.” 

Boudin is up for the challenge. Whether the same can be said for this city will be answered in the coming weeks and months.