April 20, 2013
I was attending a protest against the nudity ban recently. One of many since San Francisco Supervisor Scott Wiener introduced and passed legislation banning nudity across the city. What was striking about this protest was that there were about 20 protesters and 20 police. Yes, one cop per protester. There have been many nudity protests since the nudity ban legislation was introduced and not one of them has been violent or resulted in the destruction of property. Do we really need a one-to-one nudist to police ratio at these protests?
According to SFPD statistics, 24 percent of all police arrests in 2012 were for violations of narcotic drug laws. A study was just completed on how police use their time in New York City. The report finds that the “NYPD used approximately 1,000,000 hours of police officer time making marijuana possession arrests during Mayor Bloomberg’s tenure.” One million hours busting mostly low level pot users!
When you go to a community public safety meeting in San Francisco organized by community groups dealing with increasing numbers of shootings, assaults, robberies, and home invasions – the consistent message police captains and officials trumpet is that there are not enough police officers. The Department is chronically understaffed. This is absolutely true. There is most definitely a shortage of police officers in San Francisco as in other cities like Oakland. This begs the question: With such a shortage shouldn’t we be allocating police resources as efficiently as possible? Is arresting low-level drug offenders, busting nude protesters, or ticketing people for sitting on the sidewalk the best use of our scarce resources? Shouldn’t the police be prioritizing violent crimes: murder, rape, robbery, assault, burglary, and other property crimes?
Take drug crimes for example. Some high level law enforcement officers in San Francisco still make the argument that there is a relationship between drugs and crime, a ‘nexus’ they call it. Meaning drug users cause more crime. Bust drug users and crime goes down, they say. This argument doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. In fact, almost all of the studies that have come out over the last two decades prove the opposite. The more law enforcement resources that are committed to upholding and enforcing drug prohibition, the more crime – especially violent crime – increases. And in the process we destroy communities and systematically criminalize large groups of people. A lose-lose proposition.
Obviously this is not just a local problem as the U.S. has the highest per capita prison population of any country. Don’t get me wrong, there are people that need to be in prison. The events in Boston clearly illustrate the important role that law enforcement has in helping to protect public safety. However, too many times we try to arrest our way out of social problems that beg for solutions outside of law enforcement. According to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, “though largely invisible in public conversations about social inequality in America, mass incarceration is a growing issue at the federal, state, and local levels and threatens to undermine the most basic goals of the civil rights movement.” Substance abuse, mental health, civil rights, unemployment, and workforce development are issues that we need to handle outside of law enforcement.
I certainly don’t blame police officers. Most of them would rather be working on solving real crime than busting a kid for selling a joint in Golden Gate Park or arresting someone for protesting the right to be nude in public. These aren’t the functions many police officers signed up for. Unfortunately, it has become the Band-Aid we use for the social problems that we cannot fix, or the ‘go to’ solution for policy makers that want to avoid real solutions and tough choices. Also, there is an old guard in law enforcement that continues to use tactics that simply don’t work and there are direct incentives built into the system that reward police jurisdictions more for spending time busting drug crime over violent and property crimes.
We need to find new ways of looking at social issues instead of dealing with them as law enforcement issues. Many of the issues that law enforcement is dealing with should be solved by using prudent economic, public health, social service, urban planning, legislative and common sense remedies.
Law enforcement leaders need to start looking at new ways of operating – especially in light of staff shortages. An example of this is the community policing model. Beat cops that walk around neighborhoods and engage with residents can have a real impact on preventing crimes before they happen. One important aspect of community policing is that it increases more non-adversarial citizen interactions with police. Non-adversarial encounters between citizens and law enforcement engage communities, result in less costly arrests, and are less likely to lead to criminalization of large portions of our society. In the long run this is a better, more just, and more fiscally responsible way to allocate law enforcement resources.
Changes to law enforcement resource allocation we can make locally can have ripple effects nationally. San Francisco should be a leader. The time is now to look at bold new ways of fighting crime and solving social problems which will, undoubtedly, lead to better and fairer outcomes for everyone.