The main entrance of the San Francisco Police Officers Association, pictured Aug. 31, 2016. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

Enforcement of SF bench warrants rife with racial bias

With Donald Trump as president, our country can expect an embrace of racial profiling and “law-and-order” policing, which could set our criminal justice policies back decades. Unfortunately, the San Francisco Police Officers’ Association wants to hasten that backsliding — the union recently made a plea that more San Franciscans be jailed for not paying a traffic ticket.

The hubbub is about a recent recall of bench warrants at the San Francisco courts. The recall applied only to warrants that were issued when someone could not afford to pay or appear on a traffic/infraction ticket. The warrants were all for minor offenses, like jaywalking, littering or sitting on the sidewalk.

These are not, and should not be, reasons to incarcerate someone. Nor should people go to jail just because they cannot afford to pay a citation. That principle — that people should not be kept behind bars based on their inability to pay — is part of the reason the City Attorney recently decided not to defend a lawsuit that challenged incarcerating people who cannot afford bail. From a Department of Justice consent decree in Ferguson, Mo., to state policy here in California, there has been increasing awareness that punishing people who are too poor to pay is an unconstitutional waste of resources.

In San Francisco, enforcement of these warrants was rife with racial bias.

In the recent report “Stopped, Fined, Arrested: Racial Bias in Policing and Traffic Courts in California,” data showed that even though less than 6 percent of San Franciscans are black, 48.7 percent of arrests for a “failure to appear/pay” warrant were of black people. Black people were nearly nine times more likely to be arrested on exactly the type of minor warrant that the San Francisco courts just recalled.

For two decades, there has been an idea that if The City makes it criminal to sit, to sleep or to have a tent in public, then homeless people will go away. The City has tried that approach repeatedly, and the San Francisco Police Department is getting paid for it. Just last year, we spent $20.7 million on “quality-of-life” issues, most of it on policing. Our Budget Analyst reviewed the spending and found it an ineffective use of resources. It is cheaper to house a homeless person than to jail them, and housing actually gets the person off the street.

The Obama administration called it cruel and unusual to punish people for resting when they have nowhere else to go. Yet San Francisco has one shelter bed for every six homeless people and more than 800 people on the waiting list, and it still issues thousands of citations each year.

Elisa Della-Piana is the legal director for Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area.

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