By Lincoln Mitchell
Special to The Examiner
Seemingly every day now, you hear that San Francisco is in the throes of a crime spree. But maybe it’s just suffering from media-induced panic.
How we see ourselves is hugely important for politics and policing in this diverse city. Sadly, the rest of America views San Francisco as a series of images informed by political, cultural or other bias.
Depending on the lens you choose, we are a city of hippies, radicals, gays and lesbians, strange futuristic ideas or other stereotypes.
Think back to the 49ers’ heyday in the 1980s: Before a big playoff game against the Bears, a homophobic Chicago newspaperman previewed the match as a battle between the “city of broad shoulders” and the “city of limp wrists.” That made the Niners’ victory even sweeter.
And who can forget San Francisco values?
More recently, we’ve been told that San Francisco is in a constant and heated conflict between wealthy tech newcomers and radical progressives. That narrative has been around for a while, but a new storyline has emerged from both the national and local media:
San Francisco is an increasingly dangerous city where crime runs rampant. And fingers point in the general direction of our radical District Attorney, Chesa Boudin.
Like any popular narrative, a kernel of truth lies at its core. I am frequently struck by how my friends and family in San Francisco worry about things like car break-ins, while in New York that seems like something from another era. More significantly, the violence against Asian Americans in San Francisco is despicable and racist, but it is not limited to one city.
Before we go into full crime panic, some perspective is in order. The idea of San Francisco being dangerous, unsafe and crime-ridden is, to a large degree, a triumph of media hype over reality.
Take murder, for instance. According to the San Francisco Police Department, in 2020 there were 48 murders in San Francisco. In the first four months of this year, amid stories that violent crime is increasing, there have been 12 murders in San Francisco, fewer than in the first four months of 2020.
That may seem like a lot of killing, but during the 1970s, when the population of San Francisco was about two thirds of what it is today, in a typical year there were between 100 and 120 homicides. Homicide is just one kind of crime, but the numbers for other violent crimes look quite similar.
Those violent crime rates continued through the early 1990s, not just in San Francisco, but in most major cities. The recent uptick in violent crime cannot be altogether ignored, but it should not be allowed to obscure the reality of a three decade trend of reduced crime in San Francisco, New York and more or less every other big city.
If you lived in a big city from around 1970-1990, you know that fear of crime was a constant fact of life then. If you didn’t, it may be tough to believe how real that fear was, but a San Francisco with far fewer people, more empty spaces and constant headlines of grisly and strange crimes, felt like a very dangerous place.
What is occurring today in cities like San Francisco is nothing like that and to suggest otherwise is absurd and ahistorical.
These comparisons aren’t just wrong, they are in service of a distinct political agenda — one that seeks to resist efforts to fight police brutality. Things looked a little different last summer. In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, the protests around the country and the frequent calls to “defund the police.” For the first time ever, it seemed like we might finally get real police reform.
The police unions and others who profit from the prison-industrial complex did not like that. And it has become clear that many white Americans do not approve of Derek Chauvin choking the life out of George Floyd, but still value police protection, even when it is delivered with a side of racism.
In 2020, right wing tactics supporting the police were too ham-fisted, particularly in cities like San Francisco, where opposition to Donald Trump and the GOP is so strong. Where the right wing failed, however, media-driven fears about rising crime rates are succeeding. For example, in New York after months of media coverage of rising crime rates, crime has, according to a recent NY1/Ipsos poll, eclipsed COVID recovery as the most important issue while voters prepare to vote in the Democratic primary for mayor. The fact that most cities, like San Francisco, are still much safer than they were a generation ago is sadly not as relevant in the face of this panic.
I am not suggesting this crime story is a product of some pro-police conspiracy, but it is striking that so many in the media, despite all the changes to crime rates and to journalism itself in the last decades, are still missing the larger point. I fear that this will be used to return to overly aggressive policing, stop-and-frisk and other racist policies that won’t reduce crime, but will increase other problems.
Lincoln Mitchell grew up in San Francisco in the 1970s and 1980s and has written numerous books and articles about history and baseball in The City. He teaches in Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. For more of Lincoln’s work, visit his website www.lincolnmitchell.com or follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell.