Stop ‘stop and frisk’

Pub date July 3, 2012

EDITORIAL If the San Francisco Police Department put up checkpoints and metal detectors all along lower Market Street and stopped and searched every person who walked by, they’d find some contraband. No question — a certain percentage of people on the city’s main downtown artery are carrying drugs or weapons. Some have warrants out. There would be multiple arrests and criminals taken off the streets.

And it’s hard to imagine that anyone would consider that a good idea.

So how about moving those checkpoints to the Mission and Bayview-Hunters Point? You might get even more weapons and drugs. And it would still be a profound violation of the civil liberties of every San Franciscan.

But what Mayor Ed Lee is now talking about — instituting some version of the notorious New York City “stop and frisk” law — isn’t much different. Under New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the police have been given the authority to search, without cause or a warrant, anyone who looks suspicious. The goal is to get guns off the street.

The result: The vast majority of people stopped are African American or Latino — and 88 percent are totally innocent.

It is, in other words, a huge waste of police resources as well as a systematic program or racial profiling and harassment.

Lee told the San Francisco’ Chronicle’s editorial board that he realized the problems with the New York system and wants a better model. And he said, correctly, that there are serious problems with gun violence, particularly in Bayview-Hunters Point. “I think we have to get to the guns,” Lee said. “I know we have to find a different way to get to these weapons, and I’m very willing to consider what other cities are doing.”

But San Francisco has spent huge amounts of time and resources trying (not always successfully) to build a community policing program that would increase trust between the police and communities of color — and any version of “stop and frisk” would instantly undermine that effort. It’s a terrible idea, and Lee should make it clear that he is dropping any discussion or consideration of it.

The mayor and his supporters insist that they’ll only pursue this approach if it can be done without profiling. But that’s almost impossible and it’s a fantasy to think the San Francisco cops, once empowered to stop anyone for any reason, would target white people the same way they do blacks and Latinos. There’s never been an example anywhere in the country where this kind of law was anything but a case study in racial profiling. Even Police Chief Greg Suhr sounds dubious.

The fact that Lee would even suggest this is a sign of how far he’s moved from his progressive roots. Moving even a step further toward this sort of wholesale civil-liberties violation would be a disaster for San Francisco.