Malia Cohen

Trayvon Martin: Can it happen here?


OPINION Like many others I have been captivated by the proceedings in the Trayvon Martin case. Personally, and as a member of the Board of Supervisors, it has inspired disappointment, outrage, frustration, and more questions about our criminal justice system than I have answers. But more than anything else this case prompts me to ask: Can this happen here?

However you feel about this particular case, we all like to think that in San Francisco we are more advanced than the rest of the country, and in most ways we are. From our Sanctuary City to our community policing strategies, we have always been conscious about race in our criminal justice system and City policies.

The neighborhoods I represent have 33 percent of the City’s African American population, more than any other area of our City, and we also have the highest concentration of young people, nearly 23 percent. More than half of the individuals who are incarcerated in San Francisco are African American and last year District 10 had the City’s highest number of youth on probation.

Regardless of their ethnicity, residents of areas that experience public safety challenges have a heightened sense of awareness or tension about what goes on in their neighborhoods. Unfortunately, sometimes seeing a young African American man is a trigger. It is a trigger to walk faster, be more alert, notify neighbors, or even call the police to report suspicious behavior.

This is the exact tension that a year ago led Mayor Lee to discuss implementing a version of New York City’s controversial Stop and Frisk Policy. Under this policy, each year police officers stop hundreds of law abiding citizens, the vast majority of which are African American, Latino, and young men on the suspicion that they may be engaging in illegal behavior. I was proud to join with many residents, faith leaders, and even our Police Chief in outlining more productive ways that we can interrupt violent behavior without instituting a policy based on racial profiling.

Thankfully, Stop and Frisk was never implemented in San Francisco, but the debate we had about it demonstrated that we still struggle with the role race plays in our criminal justice system and crime in our neighborhoods.

This verdict serves as a call to action for all of us that if we don’t want a similar tragedy to occur here, we must continue to do what San Francisco has always done best — lead the way. I will continue to push our City to have open dialogues about race in all of our public safety policies. I have spent the last year and will continue to do everything possible to strengthen our City’s regulations on gun control and work collaboratively with all of our communities to develop real solutions to violence that are rooted in protecting and supporting our neighborhoods instead of racial profiling.

Malia Cohen represents southeast San Francisco on the Board of Supervisors.