In a hearing today, Supervisors Dean Preston, Connie Chan, and Rafael Mandelman questioned the San Francisco Police Department and the Mayor’s Office on the purportedly “strategic” slant of their interactions with the media.
Preston, who called the hearing and is chair of the Government Audit and Oversight Committee, said he was concerned about what appeared to be “an orchestrated and constant narrative — on crime, on policing, on public safety — that encourages increased police funding and increased policing.”
“We need to understand to what extent taxpayer funds are being used to shape the media and the public narratives on these important issues,” he said.
The SFPD’s Strategic Communications and Media Relations Unit is responsible for letting the public and the media know what the police are doing. It has nine positions (although only eight are currently filled), including three public information officers and a videographer, and a staffing budget of $1.6 million.
The head of the unit, Matt Dorsey, previously worked in media relations for industry, political campaigns and the City Attorney’s office.
Preston alleged that the unit typically highlights information that makes the department look good and advances the financial and ideological interests of the police while sidelining information that might cast the police in a negative light. For example, while the reform efforts of the SFPD are lauded in every press release, there have apparently been no press releases that draw attention to persistent racial disparities in San Francisco policing.
Assistant Police Chief Bob Moser said that the unit makes a “good faith effort” to provide reporters with all the information they ask for, in a timely manner. He said that the use of the word “strategic” in the unit’s title did not refer to any political or PR strategy, but rather the need to be strategic in how to best get information to the public; for instance, through press releases, social media posts, or communication with journalists.
There was “room to address” the unit’s lack of messaging around racial disparities, he added.
Alec Karakatsanis, a lawyer with expertise in criminal justice reform and the founder of Civil Rights Corps, said in the hearing that some local journalists work closely with police to “change and manipulate and distort” information to conform to a pro-law enforcement ideology – producing what he called “copaganda.”
He said that some San Francisco media outlets highlight “crimes committed by poor people,” such as retail theft, over white-collar crimes, and attempt to create a sense that crime is surging when reported crime is at historically low levels. The implicit message, he said, is that the solution to improving public safety is “more money for surveillance and punishment.”
Karakatsanis also said that the SFPD’s reforms had not helped reduce police violence.
“I think the way that the San Francisco Police Department talks about so-called reform is a joke,” he said. “No serious person puts any stock in it.”
According to police data, officer-involved shootings have decreased significantly since 2015, and the department’s use of force has more than halved since 2016. A 2020 report suggests that the main factor behind this decline in use of force was a reduction in instances where officers pointed their firearms at people; other uses of force declined far less. And there are still significant racial disparities in who is being targeted, with officers using force on Black people 12 times more often than they do on white people.
Mandelman accused Karakatsanis of “gaslighting,” and said he must have come to his conclusions “without talking with San Franciscans about their daily lived experiences.”
“Saying that retail theft is not an out-of-control situation in San Francisco is nuts,” he said.
The SFPD’s data dashboard does not single out retail theft, but it does show that the wider category of “larceny theft” has decreased about 38 percent since 2017. Several categories of crime increased last year, but reported crime is lower, overall, than before the pandemic.
Karakatsanis said it was “genuinely upsetting” to be accused of gaslighting after providing his comment on SFPD and the city’s media.
“The things I’ve heard today from SFPD and Supervisor Mandelman are not making us safer,” he said. “They’re making us less safe.”
Press releases from the Mayor’s Office were also a point of contention during the hearing. Preston said that, of all Mayor’s Office press releases that mentioned SFPD, one-third referenced calls for increased police funding, and one-third positively referenced SFPD’s efforts at reform. He asked if that was a strategy decided by the mayor and SFPD.
“I would not call it strategic so much as consistent with the mayor’s State of the City Address,” said Tom Paulino, the mayor’s liaison with the Board of Supervisors. The mayor called for higher policing numbers during her address at the start of the year.
Chan wrapped up the hearing by suggesting that government departments should establish more formalized protocols for how they communicate with the public.
“There is a fine line between public information and publicity,” she said.