San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott and District Attorney Chesa Boudin presented a united front in addressing perceptions of high crime and lowered public safety in San Francisco during a Monday evening panel conversation moderated by Mission Local’s Joe Eskenazi.
During the Zoom event, both speakers emphasized that the perception of worse-than-ever crime rates in the city does not always align with reality. Both Scott and Boudin referred to actual reported crime trends: Most crimes, like robbery and rape, are trending down or staying flat. Gun violence however, has increased in San Francisco — there were three fatal shootings in the past three days, Eskenazi pointed out.
This disconnect could have different explanations, Boudin said, including a general feeling of unsafety, or possibly less reporting of crimes to the police.
“If people aren’t doing that first step of notifying the police,” Boudin said, “There’s no way they can go out and do their job, and there’s no way I can do mine.”
As Eskenazi pointed out, of course, there are also cases when an incident is caught on surveillance or bystander video and gets widespread media attention, and these cases often get solved quickly — Scott said this is in part because the offender’s face is seen on camera.
Sometimes, the DA’s office and the SFPD disagree, like in the case of Robert Newt, who committed two homicides after being arrested and released while the DA awaited DNA evidence from the SFPD regarding a gun found in a car he was arrested in. While the police believed there was enough to prosecute Newt, Boudin insisted during last night’s discussion that the case would have been dismissed without forensic evidence.
The DA has been blamed by critics for rampant crime in San Francisco; two recall efforts against him have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, with the first failing to collect enough signatures by its deadline of last week. A second recall effort, with far more financial backing, is ongoing.
Last night, however, Boudin refuted the claim that his office doesn’t prosecute people who commit crimes. “When police make an arrest, we prosecute and we hold people accountable. That’s what happened in the majority of cases the police bring us,” Boudin said.
This also means that if an arrest isn’t made by police or there’s insufficient evidence, there isn’t much his office can do. Boudin cited that his office has filed charges this year in over 80 percent of burglaries and 70 percent of robberies that the SFPD has presented an arrest for — rates he said are higher than the years before he took office at the start of 2020.
And, while Scott said his department does everything in its power to arrest offenders, especially repeat offenders, and collect evidence to present to the DA, he also said that there are cases in which officers’ hands are tied, too. For example, while the SFPD’s clearance rates (meaning cases solved and/or referred to the DA for charging) for gun violence and homicide are very high, property crimes and thefts without DNA evidence are much more difficult to solve, Scott said, and therefore have “traditionally low” clearance rates.
The DA and the Police Chief stressed the need for a collaborative relationship that keeps the community’s best interests at heart, even when the two organizations don’t necessarily agree.
“The public is demanding change in our criminal justice system. So that doesn’t happen without a little bit of pain, a little bit of sacrifice, a little bit of disagreement … ” Scott said.
He condemned police officers who have tried to discourage residents from reporting crimes, by telling them that the District Attorney would likely not file charges.
“I will say it publicly, I would say privately: It doesn’t promote confidence to the public, and it undermines the whole process,” Scott said.
Although he generally supports alternatives to incarceration, DA Boudin also acknowledged some lessons learned in his time serving San Francisco, namely the case of hit-and-run suspect and parolee Troy McAlister.
“We all lie awake at night wondering what we could have done differently,” Boudin said, referring to his and various other agencies that were involved in the case. “So, yeah, we learn lessons and we change policies.”
One of those lessons was filing parole revocations. That practice changed in 2013, when District Attorneys across the state stepped back from filing revocations. Since the McAlister case, however, Boudin’s department now files them. “We’re doing it because we clearly need to take responsibility for parolees who are arrested in San Francisco,” he said.
Scott acknowledged that the police department also had room for improvement in increasing arrest rates for some crimes with notoriously low clearance rates, taking the opportunity to make a plea for more resources for police investigations. He said a burglary unit set up two years ago has seen success, and mentioned a new retail theft unit is forthcoming.
“They’re overwhelmed. There’s not enough of them … You heard me screaming for resources in this budget cycle, and I’ll continue to do that,” Scott said.