Guardian Voices: Stop and Frisk didn't work last time


Mayor Lee’s musings before the Chronicle editorial board, in which he revealed his thoughts about instituting a “stop and frisk” policy in San Francisco, set off a very quick negative responses from two of his high-profile supporters in the African American community, Willie Brown and Supervisor Malia Cohen. But that’s only part of the surprise the mayor will face if he pursues this policy.

It wasn’t a real good week for Mayor Lee, who seemed to repeatedly trip himself up:

-- In  the chat about stop and frisk;
-- In the admission at a Board of  Supervisors hearing by Sutter/CPMC that the economic modeling of the hospital chain's proposed  project so undermined key elements of the deal that Mayor Lee demanded that it be redone;
-- And in his testimony before the Ethics Commission on the Mirkarimi case that brought specific charges of  perjury he has yet to answer.

But the stop and frisk was the most sobering of the three, for it shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the very nature of the city that he seeks to govern and an astounding insensitivity to its not-too-distant past.

The last time stop and frisk was implemented by the San Francisco Police Department was in 1974, at the height of the “Zebra” murders during which, over a six-month period from the end of 1973 to the beginning of 1974, 16 whites were murdered and another six wounded (one of whopm was a young Art Agnos) in shootings using a similar caliber hand gun. What made sensational headlines was the fact that the six survivors all agreed that the shooters were  black. 

Mayor Joe Alioto, facing a steep decline in tourist visits to the city and a drumbeat of headlines, surprised eferyone by announcing a stop and frisk policy aimed at young Black males. Within the first week some 500 stops were made. Not a single Zebra suspect was found.

The San Francisco NAACP and ACLU quickly filed suit in Federal Court where the policy was banned as being un-Constitutional racial profiling. The Zebra case was broken using the time tested technique of offering a reward for information. An informant stepped up, and in the summer of 1974, four men were arrested based upon his information. In 1976 the four men were convicted --and the stop and frisk policy had nothing to do with either their arrest or conviction.  Nothing remained of the failed policy for 38 years.

What did remain was a deep and bitter memory of stop and frisk in the San Francisco African-American community -- a memory neither Willie Brown nor Malia Cohen forgot.

If the mayor really believes that stop and frisk will work in the face of deep seated community resentment, based on actual local historic experience – for his remarks were all about “getting the guns” off the street in African American neighborhoods -- then he has a profound misunderstanding of the nature of San Francisco.

San Francisco is perhaps one of the two or three most humanly diverse cities in North America. There is a bewildering mix of humans in our city, which confronts any policy based upon appearances -- such as stop and frisk -- with complexities that often render its actual use on the street ineffective. Simply stated, people are not as they seem in San Francisco, and many San Franciscans prefer to live no other way. Good cops understand this and work hard to learn who is who on the street. That’s called community policing and it often works in San Francisco.  

But many times it doesn’t. Let me tell you a personal story.

During the school year, I try to pick up my two grandsons, Jalius and Jacob, every Tuesday. We spend some time together walking from their school, George Peabody, in the Inner Richmond, to the 33 Stanyan bus stop at Clement and Arguello for a bus ride back to the Haight-Ashbury. We walk and talk and then wait for the bus and talk some more.

A few months ago, we were waiting for the bus, the boys sitting on the bench, me standing and talking. I noticed a cop across the street doing a foot patrol, talking to merchants and customers. He kept looking at us. He was Chinese and my grandsons are half Chinese.  Finally, he walked over to us and with a polite smile asked me why was I talking to these children.

I had an idea that was why he came over so I was expecting the question. I smiled back to him and said, proudly, “these are my grandsons, Jalius and Jacob”.  He looked at me and then turned to the boys and said “is he?” They said “yes” and he looked back at me and said “just doing my job,”  and turned and walked away.

And what a tough job it is as people are often other than they look in San Francisco. Old white men are not always what they seem, and young black men are not always what they seem, no matter how low they ware their pants. Policies based upon things being exactly as they appear will be overwhelmed by the human reality of the City of St. Francis.

There is a connection between people in this physically compact city of ours that forms a foundation for a common political outlook when it comes to personal and group rights and freedoms. San Francisco is a center-left city on matters of civil and human rights. Local elections have shown time after time that on civil and human rights the usual political divisions between the various parts of San Francisco don’t obtain. Trying to push a center-right stop and frisk policy on San Francisco will politically isolate Ed Lee, making all other parts of his agenda that much more difficult to accomplish. And as a city we need to get some big things done, quickly. Let’s move on, together, and get them done.