Just Questions, To Begin

Opinion by George P. Denny

Editor’s Note: The views expressed in this commentary are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of HVSafe.

Dear Neighbors,

So, how does it feel to love San Francisco?

Take this question in any direction you want, over whatever general period of time you have felt this way. What is it like to pay the costs to live here, what unique perks do you enjoy, and in what direction do you see the city trending? I write to you today because I adore our San Francisco dearly, more than any place I’ve ever known, and I believe a person’s character is no better than a used needle on the street if you aren’t willing to fight for what you love.

So, what’s going on around here?

In the most general terms, we’re about to finish our first full year of the Covid-19 pandemic and while some of our challenges are seen in most major cities, there seems to be something unique happening here. San Francisco cruised into 2020 riding a wave of historic economic growth, and upon that fateful March shut-down, the tide seemed to reverse overnight. Those tech workers who never intended to live here long-term were all instantly set free by the shift to work-from-home life, tourist traffic froze after generating a $10.2 billion windfall in 2019, and virtually every local small business had to shutter, sell, or pivot overnight. Suddenly, long-simmering problems like bloated city budgets, homelessness, and crime rose to the forefront of daily life against the backdrop of our brash new District Attorney, Chesa Boudin. Simply put, we face more problems than ever, our most daunting obstacles swell by the day, and there’s far less money coming in to address them.

So, who’s this Chesa Boudin character?

Chesa Boudin made national news with his election to San Francisco District Attorney in November, 2019 on perhaps the most extreme law enforcement platform ever put before American voters. The child of parents who were incarcerated for a robbery that killed two police officers at the age of one, Boudin used his birthparents’ story to tell voters that the true victims of law-and-order policies were the convicted criminals within the penal system. He pledged to ignore quality-of-life crimes, end cash bail with a “risk-based-system,” and “decarcerate” the San Francisco prison population.

Boudin took office on January 8th, 2020, and quickly made good on all his promises. He outlined his ideas four months later in a Los Angeles Times opinion piece titled I’m keeping San Francisco safer by emptying the jail. My father should be freed too.” The essay is quite profound in its stated ambitions, and may be noted by criminal justice experts for decades to come. “Using the discretion granted to prosecutors by law, we’ve reduced San Francisco’s jail population by 40% since March 16,” Boudin boasts. The approach to prosecution, sentencing, and accountability is equally clear: “When public safety allows, we delay filing new charges. We have released, pending trial, those in jail facing low-level offenses, along with the elderly and medically vulnerable. We work with the courts to expedite scheduled releases for inmates with solid reentry plans. We avoid detaining people for technical violations such as missed appointments. Through this work, we’ve identified some people who should never have been in jail in the first place, and we’ve found more humane, cost-effective, safer alternatives instead.” Both Chesa Boudin and his harshest opponents agree that these transformations of law enforcement are revolutionary. But as crime reports evolve and the city staggers toward a new, frightening future, Boudin’s critics have been empowered to challenge his wisdom, even going so far as to start a “Recall Chesa Boudin” campaign. The recall petition began on January 2nd, 2021, and closed three weeks later having achieved the necessary 15,000 signatures.

So, how is the new approach to law enforcement working?

The objective answer is that it depends who you ask. To our district attorney, the person most responsible with upholding the law, the plan is working ahead of schedule and we should all be grateful for the results. Boudin claimed as much in his January 28th, 2021 State of Justice address where he asserted that crime had decreased by 24% and that we haven’t been so safe in decades, although he added humbly that he “didn’t want the credit.” These figures are the subject of much debate among the citizens of San Francisco, as they apparently don’t account for the significant decrease in population, the total absence of tourists to soak up some criminal attention, and the dramatic rise of home invasions as a substitute for smashed car windows. (If tourists to SF are the vast majority of those gullible enough to leave valuables in their parked car, and there are few such jackpots to be had, where would you expect those thieves to turn?)

But the roots of the “Recall Chesa Boudin” campaign trace their origin to a catastrophic New Year’s Eve hit-and-run that killed two women, and have only grown in volume since. The perpetrator of the NYE attack was paroled by Chesa in April of 2020 and faced no consequences for arrests such as car theft and auto burglary in the intervening period. “The criminal justice system in our city has failed,” Mayor London Breed said of the incident, in a rare rebuke of DA Boudin. “Had this person been held accountable for the numerous crimes that they committed, then this possibly would not have happened.”

San Francisco didn’t wait long before another hit-and-run fatality was committed against a young father who had moved to the city only ten days previously. Just like the NYE calamity, this victim was also killed by a person who had stolen the vehicle, had been released by Boudin, and was arrested several times following his release without being charged. Other crimes, like the unprovoked assault that killed an 84-year-old Thai man standing in his driveway without an attempted theft, mirror a recent outbreak of violence against elderly Asians that is much harder to diagnose. They appear to be hate crimes, given the similarities of the victims, but only if you ask someone outside the DA’s office. By popular definition, these fatalities aren’t considered to be so-called “quality-of-life” infractions. However, drug use is among the areas of public life that Boudin pledged to ignore on the campaign trail, and here we have more accurate data: 699 people died of an overdose in 2020, a rise of 59% from the previous year. DA Chesa Boudin has recanted none of his ideas and beliefs to date, but suggests we treat rising addiction with city-sanctioned sites to tie off and spike up.

Such is life here in the great city of San Francisco. Love is loyalty, love is pain, and love is sacrifice, but no love lasts forever.