"Data Never Override Emotion" and Other Disasters on the Road to Criminal Justice Reform
The debate with Tana Ganeva continues
Welcome to the 3rd in a series of open letters with Tana Ganeva about criminal justice. Feel free to start with part 1, “The Impeachment of Larry Krasner and the Sunsetting of the Progressive Prosecutor” (NR) and part 2, “Reform DAs—tired or wired?” (TG). But first! Do consider upping your free subscription to a paid one and/or hitting the tip jar. Girl needs to eat
Hello Tana. Thank you for your considered response. You are more versed in the particulars of criminal justice than I, and I learned several things, such as the number of new progressive DAs reaching office. We know both that the pendulum will always swing, and also that, like fashion, trends start in the big cities and then spread, a version of that dress that debuts in Paris in 2020 winding up in Marshall's in 2022. I wonder if the very good and liberal idea that non-violent criminals need not be incarcerated is just now making its way to more conservative places like Oklahoma City. As I mentioned in my initial piece, few people are for over-incarceration (except, perhaps, the people who run for-profit prisons), and the idea that progressive policies will yield both less incarceration and less crime, is, I imagine, water to a thirsting man.
That said, the proof is in the pudding. (The food references, thus far in each graf, will not, alas, be stopping.) And I'm not sure progressive policies are getting the results people want. Portland has just surpassed last year’s record number of homicides, and while you mentioned that,"if you look at all violent crime [in San Francisco], it decreased under Boudin’s tenure,” it actually didn’t.
Yes, crime has dropped in SF from a high in the mid-aughts, but I don't see how we can credit Boudin with that. He also rode in loaded for bear in January 2020, his office's first statement (which I am told was quickly deleted) focusing not on public safety, but police accountability.
I can see someone arguing that police accountability is public safety, but I don’t think that holds much water, or only in the narrowest sense and, I will argue, can be to the detriment of the public. I was on the Portland Police scanner the other night when 911 received a call every 8 seconds. The average is every 20 seconds, or more than a million calls a year. The Portland Police had 734 use of force incidents in 2021, encompassing everything from kicks to K-9 bites to battering rams. There were four fatal police shootings. (Data per Portland Police Bureau Annual Report 2021.) A violent incident occurring 0.0734% of the time a 911 call is made - and, granted, many of those calls are flippant - does not strike me as an outrageous number. San Francisco percentages at the time Boudin came into office may be higher. Still, no one is under the illusion that alleged criminals are handing out daisies (even in San Francisco!).
For readers who do not know, Boudin came by his antipathy for police honestly, so to speak. A bit of his bio, as I wrote earlier this year:
"Each of his four parents were members of the radical militant group the Weather Underground. He is the son of Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert, who went to prison in 1981 after they drove the getaway car for hold-up of a Brink’s truck in Nyack, New York, a botched robbery that left two police officers and one security guard dead. Chesa was 14 months old at the time. He was adopted by Bernadine Dohrn and Bill Ayers, the Weather Underground's telegenic leaders, and grew up visiting his biological parents in prison."
Did his past hold a piquant nostalgia for some San Franciscans? Maybe. Still, I think it was an almost rookie move on Boudin's part, making police the adversary out of the gate. The DA needs to be the district attorney for all constituents, not only the portion for whom animus for the police is what they sprinkle on the breakfast cereal. The average citizen is largely apolitical or even apathetic, but when the civic fabric starts to tear -- and in San Francisco that tear has become overwhelmingly visible, in the form of homelessness and drug users on on the streets and the attendant crime that fuels addiction - citizens do not like being told, their intolerance is the problem, or that there's no problem, or that the problem has always been there and forces on the right (or the left!) are using the problem to enforce their political agenda. Which is what started this conversation, re: it wasn’t the citizens of Philadelphia who voted to impeach Larry Krasner but the state GOP. True! But who put those politicians there?
You wrote that "data never override emotions.” On this, we 100% agree. So I am curious: Did former second-in command of SFPD Jim Dudley commenting on our conversation that there were "over 700 [overdose] deaths in a year - not one fentanyl sales prosecution. Most cases referred to 'restorative justice' where none was done" move your needle, on what’s been done right and wrong on the streets of San Francisco? It's an emotional issue, seeing what's going on around the Tenderloin Center. It does move people, including some of the people who voted to oust Boudin and including me.
Being moved by the above scene, and by the header image, resulted in my being told, by some in the libertarian space, that denying people the autonomy to shoot up in the street meant I was against personal freedom, or maybe a shill for (what they saw) as a right-wing and tech-bro effort to oust Boudin. This may be a different conversation - and I trust there is enough meat on these bones to have more of these conversations - but I see drug addiction as a kind of prison in itself. I know of no junkie who’s like, “Dude, my life is awesome!” It’s a lonely and sick existence. The streets of Portland have changed massively since drugs were decriminalized - a policy I agree with btw, but when unaccompanied by drug treatment and other support, leaves people literally decaying before your eyes. How is this humane?
Anyway, I mention Boudin’s origin story because I think is gets to the heart, or one of the hearts, of what’s driven some progressive policies. After the police killing of George Floyd, people demanded change, which is correct and overdue. And yet how they went about actuating change - and I am going to take Portland as an example, since I was on the ground there - was often juvenile and uninformed. I challenge anyone to show me what was built during or after the 100+ nights of street violence. The protests went from being an ostensible political movement to an orgy of random violence, or, as I once put it, “a nightly spurt of relief,” one the city is still trying to recover from. Have you seen the Apple store, which was molested so many times (as molesters filmed it with their iPhones) it now looks like a cross between a Bauhaus museum and a prison?
Then there was the blond girl who ran up to me during on of the riots in front of the federal courthouse, screaming, “The police are killing all our black friends in the street!” I would have let her know two people in Portland had been killed that year by Portland police, both white, but she ran off into the crowd. Still, and as you note, the data would not have trumped the emotion.
The emotion was fueled by mistrust of police. They were the enemy then and they are a perennial enemy. I have no problem with people and policies holding police accountable. We should and must do that. Police take an oath to protect people and when they betray that oath, it makes everyone insecure. However, making the police the problem, as Boudin did out of the gate; as the blond girl was quite sure of, ignores the other 99%+ instances where the police have done an average or commendable job. Yesterday, I read in the NY Post about two toddlers stabbed to death by their mother. The police found the bodies of the 3 year-old and 11-month old boys in the bathtub, covered with water and clothes. Their mother was naked and raving in the kitchen. I doubt the police expect plaudits for going into that apartment and securing the situation; it’s their job, just as it was the job of a friend whose BORTAC unit had the guts to burst into the classroom at Uvalde and apprehend the killer of 19 children and two teachers. "The guys struggling the most are the ones that triaged the kids after neutralizing the threat," he wrote me. I haven’t seen this talked about much and indeed his unit does not talk about it. It can be a really shitty and hard job. Or, as his Twitter handle says, “If we meet, you’re probably having a bad day.”
Do police sometimes react to their national villainy by slow-rolling? I am sure they do. Police unions in general suck; and police tend to be realists as opposed to idealists - as one SFPD officer explained to me, this tends to happen when you’re cleaning people’s brains off the street - so they are going to clash with policies that they sense, rightly or wrongly, are going to make the street more dangerous, i.e., a DA’s office being unwilling to prosecute, say, property crimes. I’ve seen Portland DA Mike Schmidt argue that the reason prosecutions are not up is because the police are not making the arrests and/or not bringing his office enough data. Likely true, if qualified by the fact that the system put in place under Schmidt has both declined to prosecute and created a revolving door for repeat offenders. This is what Portland said it wanted. It wanted to be kinder, it wanted to respect people’s right to break shit in the name of free speech - and I am sorry, I will never back down on what happened most nights on the ground in Portland being pure-ass vandalism. In other words, Portland needed the police to be the villains in order to justify its ostensible good intentions.
Before I get to Rachael Abraham, I have what I think is a poignant and opposite story, which I included in a piece at Reason. It was August 2020, the night after a motorist had been pulled from his truck in downtown Portland and badly beaten, a savage scene caught on camera. I was at the Portland Police Association, the union hall that activists were in the process of setting on fire for the umpteenth time, a fire a young man in black bloc was helpfully letting me photograph, going so far as to pull over a box for me to stand on as his cohorts lit the flames.
"I wouldn't want to live within five blocks of any of the places," he says, meaning the spots he and his fellow black blockers descend on, the PPA, the North Precinct police station, the Justice Center downtown.
I ask him about what happened the night before, that guy being pulled out of the truck. Does black bloc have any feelings about that?
"It's the 7-Eleven kids, the kids that hang out at the 7-Eleven," he says, noting that they're not affiliated with anyone. "The cops know they're there," he adds. "They've got them on video. They should have been there."
Right, but the cops are chasing black bloc all over the city, I remind him. Which seems to give him pause.
"They should have been there," he repeats, showing something less than anarchistic purity.
You mention in your letter than the police took more than three hours to respond to a 911 call from Rachael Abraham as well as one from her neighbor. I cannot explain this. But if it comes to light that they stalled out of pique or whatever, then they will have her blood on their hands, and they will not be the only ones. I have just finished writing a 7,000-word piece about Abraham’s murder, and while I cannot answer why police did not arrive until the killer himself, Mohamed Adan, called and told them to come, I know with certainty Adan had been repeatedly arrested for assaulting Abraham; that he’d previously been charged with five counts of strangulation, and that at least six judges in Portland let him out on zero bail. Judges in Portland are elected, not appointed, and the ones elected in recent years agree with Schmidt’s policies to not put people in jail for non-violent offenses, which I agree with. However, how is strangulation not violent? Why did judges let Adan go free after he ripped off his court-ordered ankle monitor and re-attacked Abraham, a charge he denied (he had) and, for good measure, stated that someone had taken the monitor off him while he was asleep? What fucking judge would let this slide? Ones for whom "data never override emotions,” who respect the emotionalism of the voters who put them in office, who maybe want some job security or maybe really believe, this is a dude we want on the street. And when Adan again attacks and strangles Abraham, one judge finally requires a $2000 bond, a stopgap circumvented by a private bail fund for black, brown and indigenous defendants, which pays the bond. A week later, Adan kills Abraham. It’s a fucking tragedy, and while the killer is at the end of the day responsible, I believe Abraham’s murder was abetted by the policies put in place in Portland, from the DA to the judges to the blond girl shouting her truth.
I have not had anyone flat-out tell me, they believe a murdered mother of six is an acceptable loss on the road to criminal justice reform, but I’ll ask you: Do you think there will or should be changes made now that Rachael Abraham is dead?
I will close by saying I took great heart in your getting drunk and shouting at Mike Schmidt about the Abraham case. Next drinks on me.