When I moved to the Bay from my Missouri hometown, I landed right in the middle of San Francisco’s Tenderloin District, the area that bears the brunt of San Francisco’s long struggle with poverty. I got my fair share of anecdotes, like any resident: being confused about why all these people were whispering ‘eighties’ to me, assuming it was an assessment of my wardrobe; seven different people trying to sell pills to my friend Allen as he walked two buildings over to the laundromat; a prospective dealer saying ‘Oh, sorry!’ upon seeing me get my building keys out; the time our apartment got bedbugs.
There’s not a disproportionate amount of violent crime — nobody’s got anything to steal, the line goes — but there’s a very visible element to the neighborhood’s drug economy. Those who are buying and selling on the sidewalk are there for a reason; they’re often homeless, unemployed, and barred by criminal records or immigration status from the traditional economy booming a few blocks away on Market Street. In other words, they’re facing the problems that communities of color everywhere face.
So it’s deeply disappointed to hear that newly elected San Francisco Police Chief George Gascon’s tactic on the war on drugs is to target the victims of the war on poverty. By focusing on small-time sting operations and by measuring success by number of arrests rather than amount seized, Gascon is making the Tenderloin’s crippling racial disparities even more deeply entrenched, while doing nothing to get real results.
From Tal Klement’s piece in the Fog City Journal (emphasis mine):
This false measurement encourages police officers to target vulnerable addicts by offering them outrageous prices for their personal stash — rather than focus on real drug-dealers who actually sell in larger quantities (usually behind closed doors).
I represent an African-American woman arrested in the crackdown on a charge of selling drugs to an undercover – for which the maximum penalty is five years in prison. This 40-year-old woman has a documented history of mental illness. She was in possession of 0.04 grams of crack (the equivalent of 4/100ths of a “ Sweet ‘n Low” packet - which weighs a gram) which she allegedly sold to a white police officer after he pretended to be a fellow addict desperate to get high. He told her he was willing to pay her $20 for the crumb of crack she had just bought for $5. The woman will likely be offered probation or prison for a conviction that makes her ineligible for housing or benefits and could result in her homelessness. My client is not the exception - my colleagues all represent clients with similar backgrounds and stories. Come down to the Hall of Justice and you will see.
The operation to arrest her, like each undercover sting operations, involved approximately ten police officers. Spend time at the Hall of Justice and you will see that it is the same cadre of officers - many of whom can be found amongst the top 100 earners in City government because of their overtime pay - who show up to testify at these cases. One of the ten officers involved in the arrest I describe above, Ferrando, is listed as making $30,000 in overtime in the first six months of this year. Gascón’s crack-down encourages more of this expensive injustice.
Not all those arrested are addicts selling their personal stash. Some of those arrested in Gascón’s crack-down are low-level “crumb dealers” who are caught with a few grams of drugs or pills and a few dollars in their pocket. Several studies suggest that the street level dealer makes minimum wage. Those on the street are often unemployed and undereducated teenagers: the special ed kid or high school drop-out raised by his grandmother because his parents have also been incarcerated. Others are indentured and paying off debts to the “coyotes” that bring them here.
Klement’s whole piece is worth a read, especially the common-sense solutions — for example, instead of “cleaning up the street” by assigning ten officers to a plainclothes sting operation, put a uniformed officer on the street corner and devote resources to tracking down the source. Until fundamental changes are made, Gascon’s “War on Crumbs” does nothing but exacerbate racial disparities in a neighborhood starved for real solutions.
image credit Thomas Hawk