On Dec. 31, 60-year-old Elizabeth Platt and 27-year-old Hanako Abe were struck and killed at Second and Mission by a speeding automobile. Those are the underlying facts, and none of the subsequent sound and fury can undo that. These women would never cross the street, nor cross into 2021.
Second and Mission is one of San Francisco’s more diabolical intersections, with a place on the city’s “high-injury network.” The reduction of pedestrian and vehicular traffic in a pandemic year was painfully obvious to the proprietors of dying businesses in this and so many San Francisco neighborhoods. And yet, in 2020, we suffered the identical number of traffic fatalities as in 2019.
But this instance of pedestrians being struck by a speeding car on a wide SoMa street isn’t a traffic story. Or at least that’s not why it induced a political firestorm.
Rather, the focus was on the alleged driver of the (stolen) vehicle that struck and killed Platt and Abe: Troy Ramon McAlister. The multiple felon had been paroled in April following an armed robbery hitch and was arrested on a series of alleged property crimes since that time — and yet, DA Chesa Boudin’s office did not file any subsequent charges in the intervening months, with McAlister instead being repeatedly referred to parole.
In what appears to be a SNAFU, the San Francisco Police Department, in contravention of its own policies, failed to contact the parole office following McAlister’s most recent arrest, on Dec. 20 — despite a written reminder from the DA’s office to do so.
Regardless, throughout McAlister’s busy 2020 — “four or five arrests,” per the DA’s office — the parole office never saw fit to revoke his parole, leaving the 45-year-old free and clear on New Year’s Eve to purportedly slam through an intersection while allegedly high on methamphetamine.
And here’s a rotten cherry on the rancid sundae: A woman on Dec. 29 reported to Daly City police that her date, McAlister, robbed her car from her while she left to pick up food, after having earlier showed off a pistol to her. McAlister’s parole status and location were known to Daly City police, but they put off corralling him until the new year.
The storylines that emerged in the wake of this sad tragedy, like the obituaries for aging politicians or entertainers, had a distinctly pre-written feel about them.
The spectacle of a serial offender leaving behind a wake of destruction — and, ultimately, death — was a readymade accelerant for the seething, amorphous and anecdotally driven rancor that the leftist DA is falling down on the job and failing to charge lawbreakers. This is an easy case to make to San Franciscans weary of ransacked cars and, increasingly, ransacked homes.
The drumbeat against the DA grew when it was reported that McAlister’s 2015 armed robbery attempt could’ve netted him a decades-long sentence under California’s three-strikes law. Instead, the DA’s office signed off on a five-year term and parole — Boudin does not, in ordinary circumstances, charge status enhancements such as a prior strike, rendering five or six years the max sentence. McAlister, once released, promptly began racking up arrests.
And that served as the foundation of the criticisms leveled at Boudin’s office in the wake of New Year’s Eve: If only this man was incarcerated, he wouldn’t be out committing crimes, and those two innocent women would be alive.
Well, that’s true. Reductive, but true: If McAlister had been locked up, he couldn’t have been out committing crimes and hurting people — intentionally or negligently. Same goes for everyone.
And, writ large, that notion has also served as the guiding philosophy behind the justice system in this state for generations. Present-day Californians fancy themselves a liberal bunch, but we continue to incarcerate alarming numbers of people based on strikingly punitive laws.
It may come as a surprise to readers that, less than a decade ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that California’s prison system had grown so overcrowded that it constituted “cruel and unusual punishment.” Between 1976 and 2006, this state’s prison population skyrocketed from 21,000 to around 173,000.
As mandated by the Supreme Court, the prison population has dipped; when, over the summer, it dropped to a mere 99,900, it was seen as a cause for fanfare. And yet our system is still at 120 percent capacity while a pandemic rips through our prisons — to date, nearly 44,000 prisoners have contracted Covid-19, and more than 150 have died.
What’s more, the violent crime rate in 1976 dwarfs that of the present, yet our expanded prison system carries five times the inmates.
California’s three-strikes law — the one some observers are now lamenting wasn’t wielded like a cudgel to put McAlister away until he was an octogenarian — fueled our state’s incarceration bonanza, even after violent-crime rates subsided. An estimated 90 percent of all three-strike sentences nationwide came here in the Golden State.
Sorry, we’ve wandered a bit far from Mission and Second and two innocent women dead on the pavement. But there are, indeed, larger societal forces at play in McAlister’s story, just as there are larger societal forces at play whenever a parolee commits a heinous crime and the system is vehemently questioned based on a highly publicized tragedy.
It’s relevant to examine how decades of California criminal justice history led us to this moment. But we must also look at this individual case — and assign accountability — for its particulars: Firstly, for this man, McAlister, who chose to do what he did. And for the local systems that, ultimately, have done little to remedy his behavior. Nor keep us safe from it.
The granular details of how and why Troy Ramon McAlister pinballed through various vestiges of the criminal justice system between April and December are maddening, complex, and maddeningly complex.
When a suspect is arrested, San Francisco Police Departmental General Order 6.12 states officers should contact the parole office. This appears to have happened during McAlister’s earlier 2020 arrests, as “parole holds” were placed on him during several stints in County Jail — meaning he would stay put until a parole officer authorized his release.
Additionally, Mission Local has obtained emails written by an attorney in the DA’s office, Armando Miranda, who took it upon himself to contact parole officers. On June 29, 2020, he noted that McAlister, under an alias, was arrested on suspicion of burglary, misrepresenting himself to a peace officer, and possessing burglary tools. On Aug. 21, Miranda wrote informing them of a McAlister arrest on suspicion of auto burglary and receiving stolen property.
On Dec. 22, Assistant DA Kimberly Williams wrote to the SFPD’s felony rebooking email address, as well as Sgt. Tina To, stating “Sgt. To — Please contact CDC regarding Defendant’s alleged misbehavior.” Attached was an investigation record showing charges of suspicion of car theft, and possessing stolen property, meth possession, burglary tools and possession of drug paraphernalia.
The purpose of these emails is ostensibly a heads-up for parole to deal with an incoming subject — either by incarcerating him or mandating lesser outcomes, such as home detention, or daily check-ins, or referring him to a network of treatment providers.
But no “parole hold” was placed on McAlister following that December arrest. He was free to purportedly rob that car in Daly City, then kill two pedestrians with it while allegedly driving intoxicated.
The SFPD confirmed that To was out of town at the time of Williams’ message, and did not return until after McAlister was released. Other officers monitoring the felony rebooking email did not make the call — it seems they assumed Sgt. To handled this.
Our messages to the parole office querying what calls it received and what, if any, interventions the office took regarding McAlister only elicited the same broad statement it has released to all media outlets:
None of the parolee’s arrests following his 2020 release have yet to result in filings of criminal charges by the District Attorney. Our parole office followed all procedures after these incidents, including conducting investigations and making appropriate referrals for the individual.
The parole office appears to be stating that it took its lead from the DA. And yet, the reverse appears to be true as well: Just as the parole office says it declined to revoke McAlister’s parole in large part because the DA declined to file charges, the DA’s office states it declined to file charges in large part because the parole office never saw fit to revoke McAlister’s parole.
There is a very bad O. Henry vibe going on here. And, in the fog of miscommunication, we’ve had a shipwreck of sorts.
When I asked DA Boudin just what became of McAlister all those times he was referred to parole, he said he’s not certain, and there’s no expedient and formal way for him to find out. This is the kind of information that’s obtained via phone calls or texts or emails among acquaintances on an informal and case-by-case basis; there is no system, per se.
Boudin’s office was told that, on at least one of the parole holds, McAlister’s parole officer met with him and had an extensive discussion. The DA’s office was further told that the parole office “tried to get him into some program.” Clearly any such effort did not succeed — and Mission Local has seen no written evidence of any interventions the parole office took regarding McAlister.
But even this level of communication between the DA and parole office seems only to have come post-facto, after McAlister’s circuitous path came to an abrupt end at Mission and Second.
“In an ideal world,” says Boudin, “We’d say, ‘We’d love it if you could handle this so as not to clog up our caseload.’ They’d say, ‘This is something we can address with treatment or intermediate sanctions. Let us work with him.’ Then they might call up and say, ‘He walked away from the program. You should file charges.’”
This should happen. “It doesn’t,” Boudin continues. “There is virtually no communication between my office and parole, and what communication does exist is from the lawyer handling parole court. And she does not handle charging decisions.”
So, this is a problem. This should change, especially considering that the DA sees merit in discharging low- to mid-level cases to parole rather than filing new charges.
And why do this? Well, it doesn’t appear to be a sign of creeping radicalism infiltrating the DA’s office via Boudin. The elected DA is not personally involved in charging decisions involving every suspected auto burglary; the three attorneys who handled McAlister’s cases are all 20-plus-year office veterans whom Boudin says “do not care about my politics.”
Rather, shunting misdemeanors (or even low-level felonies of the auto burglary variety) to parole is simply viewed as an expedient way to clear out cases. In fact, tough-on-crime former Los Angeles DA Jackie Lacey, recently supplanted by George Gascón running from her left, in March adopted Covid-related policies both limiting the filing of new cases and referrals to the parole office.
There are practical reasons for this, in addition to any feel-good political messaging about “decarceration.”
“State prison hasn’t picked up a single individual in San Francisco since early April. I literally cannot send anybody to prison,” said Boudin. “I have like 40 or 50 guys sentenced to state prison who are still in county jail.”
Fair enough. But current and former county prosecutors contacted by Mission Local said they still feel it was a bad move for Boudin’s office to repeatedly discharge McAlister to parole when there was so little clarity on what, if any, repercussions this triggered.
“If the point is to discharge to parole, you better have a fucking answer about what happens when you do that — or what are you doing?” queried one former San Francisco prosecutor.
“How are you treating public safety seriously when you don’t know what’s on the other side?”
What’s on the other side, the prosecutor alleges, isn’t much: “Why do this multiple times when everybody knows parole doesn’t do shit?”
And yet, had Boudin filed charges “it would have changed nothing,” the prosecutor surmised.
That sounds about right: Data provided by the SFPD indicates that, even with parole holds in place, McAlister exited the jail in well less than a week on two recent property crime arrests; minus a parole hold in his third recent incident, his sojourn was shortened by only perhaps a couple of days.
“He’d be out of custody,” continued the prosecutor. “It’s a pandemic. It’s San Francisco. Gimme a fucking break.”
Remember Introducing Spider-Man, Amazing Fantasy No. 15 from 1962? No? Remember that part where young Peter Parker sees a blond-haired suspected thief running from a slow-footed cop, and fails to intervene? And you remember what happened?
That suspected thief shot Peter’s Uncle Ben dead in a botched robbery.
If only this man was incarcerated, he wouldn’t be out committing crimes, and Uncle Ben would be alive.
Santa Clara University law professor David Ball remembers that. He wrote an October, 2020, paper about incarceration called The Peter Parker Problem. The recriminations bandied around in the wake of McAlister’s alleged crime spree are eerily similar to those he wrote about, using a 59-year-old comic book as inspiration.
“How was Peter to know that the man running past him that fateful night was even violent, much less a killer? There was no evidence of violence and people who steal (and leave witnessing police alive) aren’t necessarily violent,” wrote Ball. “In this case, the simple causal story promotes simple solutions. Peter Parker decides to wear a spider costume and fight crime as Spider-Man.”
Elizabeth Platt and Hanako Abe are dead, and that did not need to happen. The concatenation of missteps that led to McAlister purportedly careening through a red light and killing them, as stated above, do not conjure up comparisons to a Swiss watch; there is, plainly, room for improvement.
But it is a stretch to say that, clearly, someone should’ve known that a man on a run of property crimes would predictably harm people, and do it in this way.
Rather, the accusations now being tossed about seem designed to more broadly appeal to people grumbling about a DA who fails to prosecute wrongdoing, leading to commuter criminals and lawless impunity. Accusations of this sort have, in some form, been leveled at the San Francisco DA’s office for a decade, if not more.
Let the record show that Boudin’s office last year charged 73 percent of residential burglaries presented to it by the police; Gascón in 2019 prosecuted 75 percent. Boudin last year charged 78 percent of drug cases; Gascón in 2019 charged 83 percent. Boudin in 2020 charged 75 percent of homicide cases; Gascón in 2019 charged 65 percent.
These numbers are not so dissimilar — and crime, in San Francisco, dropped 25 percent in 2020.
These statistics should not be used to console someone who’s been burgled or robbed or harmed or lost a loved one. But it is a better basis for policy-making than shocking anecdotes; Ball notes that lurid commercials about Willie Horton’s criminality may well have turned the 1988 presidential election — but 99 percent of the inmates in his Massachusetts furlough program did not re-offend.
You don’t know the names of the thousands of men who did nothing wrong. You don’t know anything about the successes. But you do know Willie Horton.
Whose name will you learn next?