A tale of police priorities

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By Anh Lê

On Friday afternoon, November 9th, as I was walking on Howard St. near 3rd, I was physically assaulted twice by a Caucasian man walking with an accomplice, an African American woman. I was punched in the jaw the first time while I was still on the sidewalk; the assailant followed me into the street traffic to punch me in the jaw again. Many people passed by, yet none stopped to help. 

I called 911 from the a nearby restaurant. The first oSan Francisco police officer to arrive ordered me to sit down, and then quickly left. Then two other officers arrived, one of whom told me that he was already on assignment at the Moscone Convention Center. Even though I had an eyewitness, and we both provided the officers with a description of the assailant and his accomplice, and I told the officers that the two were still in the vicinity on Howard St., the police did nothing. One of the cops told me, "I think the guy looks like someone from the Tenderloin."

Compare that to another incident and you get a sense of the city’s police priorities.

On Thursday afternoon, December 13, at the Muni island bus stop on Market St. at 5th, I saw two young African American men in handcuffs. They were detained by an SFPD officer, and two Muni fare inspectors. Both African American men were calm, poised, and respectful in their behavior.

One of the handcuffed men had a cell phone in his mouth while the police officer was questioning him. I thought that it was an odd situation, since the officer could have assisted him by removing the cell phone from his mouth.  I also thought that the dynamics of the situation seemed degrading and demeaning to this young man.

Within five minutes, several additional SFPD officers arrived on the scene, and then several more arrived in an unmarked large black SUV. Nearly all of the police officers were Caucasian. None was African American. 

One of the officers unzipped the second detainee's backpack.  He calmly said to the officer, "I don't have any weapon in there." I could see that the situation involved a simple Muni fare situation. Yet I saw more than ten SFPD officers responding.

I spoke with two of the passengers waiting at the bus stop to ask them what they had seen. Semetra Hampton and Laversa Frasier told me that they saw the two young males handcuffed, and that these young men never acted in any aggressive manner.

I spoke with the two young men, Wayne Price and Jamal Jones. Each received citations, one for paying a youth fare as an adult, the other for misuse of a Clipper card. Hardly serious crimes.

I contacted Officer Michael Andraychak in the Media Relations Unit at SFPD and Paul Rose, spokesperson for San Francisco Municipal Transit Authority to ask why so many officers were involved in such a minor incident.

Rose emailed to tell me that transit fare inspectors saw that the men were using youth passes and asked for identification. When they refused, the fare inspectors contacted police. Andraychack said a Muni fare inspector tried to detain the suspects, but they refused to comply and ran onto the Muni bus island. The inspectors flagged down a nearby police officer, who radioed his location and told dispatch that he was being summoned by Muni personnel for an undetermined problem. Additional officers heard this radio transmission and responded to the scene.

He noted that “Fifth Street / Market is on the border of Tenderloin and Southern Districts. Officers from both districts patrol this area and the MTA K9 officers routinely patrol the Market Street Muni Metro Stations and surface transit stops.”

I appreciate the efforts by Rose and Andraychack to provide me with the information requested.  However, their statements only tell part of the story. Some of their information does not match what I observed, nor what the eyewitnesses told me at the Muni bus stop.

I was there; I counted more than ten SFPD officers who descended on these two young men. Neither of them had done anything violent to anyone, yet their fare evasion elicited massive response.

On the other hand, there was no diligent effort by SFPD to locate, apprehend, and arrest the assailant who assaulted me, on November 9th when he and his accomplice were still in the vicinity of the attack.

Mayor Ed Lee recently proposed a policy permitting police officers to detain and search certain individuals on the street if police deemed it necessary. After vigorous protests from San Franciscans and the Board of Supervisors on the grounds that such a policy would encourage racial profiling, the mayor withdrew the plan.

Still, I have to wonder: Is sending that many officers to handle a simple Muni fare situation involving two young African American males necessary -- or is it racial profiling at its extreme? Is this how we as San Franciscans want to see our tax dollars spent -- and wasted?