Human Rights

Is Gentrification Fueling Police Brutality in San Francisco?

Police may be under pressure to more aggressively patrol San Francisco's rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods.

Everybody knows that Silicon Valley is sucking the life out of San Francisco. Tech dominance has pushed real estate prices sky-high. There’s a shortage of affordable housing. Anyone who is not in tech knows someone who has been evicted. Quirky local businesses have been supplanted by pricier shops and eateries. San Francisco is the only Bay Area county that’s growing whiter, not more racially diverse. And as the chasms between the rich and everybody else grow, property crimes are up and so are demands for more policing in once working-class and bohemian neighborhoods.

I live at the epicenter of these trends, in a neighborhood that’s been taken over by techies. Yet as best I can tell, no one is developing an app to create affordable housing, deal with homelessness or be more neighborly. A block away, a family that owns a half-dozen buildings raised the rent for one long-term tenant in a shabby house to $9,000 to push her out. That ugliness made the news a few months ago as a tale of outsized greed, but it’s not even a record anymore. These days, what’s news in this most liberal of U.S. cities is that San Francisco has a deep problem with racist policing and police brutality. 

It’s shocking to count the ways. Black women are arrested here at 13 times the rate of other races, the most recent report found. That came after more than a half-dozen SFPD cops were outed as racists and homophobes, after their emails were discovered as part of a federal court trial on police corruption. The police chief has called for firings. The city prosecutor has asked three outside judges to probe their “bias and racism,” saying that evidence in 3,000 arrests may be questioned. Meanwhile, more statistics are surfacing, such as the fact that 6 percent of residents are black, yet make up 56 percent of city jail inmates.

San Francisco clearly is not as liberal as people from afar think. Here on the frontlines, as the city’s Board of Supervisors wring their hands and call for more task forces, I’m beset by an unsettling question: is gentrification turning some cops into killers?

A year ago, less than a quarter mile from my door, police were called to Bernal Heights’ hilltop park after a young Latino, Alex Nieto, had a bad reaction to a dog who was running free and grabbed at his lunch. Nieto was wearing a taser on his waist, apparently for a security guard job he was heading to. The dog's owner called 911. The cops showed up, said Nieto was acting aggressively, saw the taser, and within a few minutes shot and killed him. Those are about the only facts in this tragedy that are not in dispute.

His family, who live down the hill in a still largely working-class Latino area, said Nieto was a peaceful man, a student and a Buddhist. The city prosecutor’s report, absolving the cops who shot him, said he had a history of mental illness, was the subject of court restraining orders, and was behaving like a menace that day, threatening others, not dropping his taser, and firing it. There have been subsequent protests, neighborhood meetings that descended into shouting and curses, and lawsuits filed. The police and the family will never agree.

It’s hard to know what to believe when trying to bridge local events and bigger trends. In this city known for its free-wheeling drug use, police have long targeted black youths for drug arrests. A 2012 report found that black youths were arrested on felony drug charges 19 times more than whites. Another report found the police do not “accurately tabulate Latino arrests.” An investigation by KQED-FM uncovered an internal SFPD summary of all officer-involved shootings between 2000 and 2014. In almost all cases, the officers who fired their guns were absolved. The report also found that 58 percent of the people killed in those years by city police had mental health issues.

Top city officials are embarrassed by the latest racist policing scandal. Yet beyond composed comments to the media and newly convened task forces, it’s hard to find signs that a deep subculture of bias—at least among some officers—is going to change. The district attorney has called for City Hall to equip police officers with body cameras, but that has not happened. Meanwhile, it seems that a cop who uses the n-word can get fired, but one who uses excessive force that kills will stay on the force.

It would be one thing if Nieto’s killing were the exception. But last February, another young Latino, Amilar Perez-Lopez, a Guatemalan immigrant, was shot and killed less than a half mile from where Nieto died. The police said Perez-Lopez was armed with a knife and trying to steal a bicycle when two undercover cops saw him at 9:45 on a Thursday night. Witnesses who knew Perez-Lopez said he was trying to get his cellphone back from someone who took it. The cops said they shot Perez-Lopez when he charged at them, but the family—which has sued—and others claim he was shot in the back and head as he fled. Their lawsuit says at least one cop had a known history of using excessive force, prompting the city to settle prior suits. Just as in Nieto’s killing, SFPD brass held a neighborhood meeting that decended into anger and vitriol.

There are many things wrong with this picture. Like many urban police departments in America, there is not only a culture of racial bias among at least some of SFPD's officers, but little legal consequence for pulling the trigger. Perhaps that is not surprising, but one wonders how much added pressure is put on San Francisco police to more aggressively patrol its gentrifying neighborhoods. Less than a block from where Perez-Lopez died, a renovated three-bedroom home just rented for $12,000 a month. This is the Mission District, where poor immigrants have flocked for decades.

Is tech boom gentrification exacerbating the worst biases of the SFPD? It’s one thing to bemoan what’s happening to a multicultural city that’s being swamped by a tsumani of tech dollars and a white Silicon Valley monoculture. But it’s another thing to ponder how newly affluent residents are pushing the police, especially when that force has a long history of disproportionately preying on black and brown people. As the Bernal Heights’ neighborhood blog reported two months before Nieto’s death last year, the SFPD was hammered at a community safety meeting for not being responsive enough.      

There are plenty of studies that correlate increased crime with gentrification, including some that cite San Francisco. “More affluent people migrating into a neighborhood are more likely to have political influence, and can therefore sucessfully request a heightened police presence,” a Duke University researcher said, stating the obvious. What’s less obvious is how the tech boom is bringing out the worst in a department with a documented history of racist policing and few legal consequences for cops using deadly force.

It’s one thing for a tech boom to be accelerating evictions, raising residential and commercial rents and watering down the city’s diversity. But it’s another issue when gentrification pressures some cops to be too quick to pull the trigger, especially when facing a person of color.

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).

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