Breed’s quest for change

S.F.’S Black mayor draws on com­plex his­tory with po­lice

San Francisco Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - By Do­minic Fra­cassa

The coun­try is in the midst of a sweep­ing and his­toric na­tional reckoning over po­lice bru­tal­ity, and for San Francisco Mayor Lon­don Breed, the po­lit­i­cal has per­haps never been more per­sonal.

Born poor and raised in a Western Ad­di­tion hous­ing project so dan­ger­ous and de­crepit it earned the nick­name OC, for “out of con­trol,” she saw much of her up­bring­ing marked by vi­o­lence, death, and a con­stant, of­ten hos­tile po­lice pres­ence, fu­eled in part by a flour­ish­ing drug trade.

“Crack was a big deal. Every­one was sell­ing crack at that time. There was some heroin. There was pros­ti­tu­tion. The drive­bys got re­ally bad when I was about 12. There were shoot­ings, stab­bings, fight­ing, beat­ings, do­mes­tic as­sault — ev­ery­thing,” Breed said in a re­cent in­ter­view.

“You couldn’t be seen talk­ing to the po­lice. That would mean you were snitch­ing or

“In the Black com­mu­nity ... the pain we deal with with th­ese homi­cides — re­gard­less of who pulls the trig­ger — it’s been ig­nored.”

Mayor Lon­don Breed

some­thing like that. And ev­ery time the po­lice came to the neigh­bor­hood, it was for some­thing bad, or to chase peo­ple or to ar­rest them or beat them up.”

As im­pas­sioned calls echo across the coun­try for civic lead­ers to re­de­fine the role of law en­force­ment and dis­man­tle the sys­tems that give rise to po­lice vi­o­lence against peo­ple of color, Breed’s per­sonal his­tory prompts a ques­tion at a crit­i­cal mo­ment: How have her ex­pe­ri­ences shaped her views around polic­ing, and how will those views in­form her ap­proach to po­lice re­form, con­sid­er­ing the lead­ing role she will play in it?

“Lon­don Breed was born and raised in San Francisco. She’s been ‘study­ing’ the po­lice for over 40 years,” said Malia Co­hen, a for­mer col­league of Breed’s on the Board of Su­per­vi­sors who’s now a mem­ber of the state Board of Equal­iza­tion.

“She has a very unique set of ex­pe­ri­ences that brings her lead­er­ship dis­tinc­tion,” said Co­hen, who, like Breed, is Black. “She can con­cep­tu­al­ize the pain and the tears a mother feels when her son’s mur­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion is still un­solved. She doesn’t have the lux­ury of dis­as­so­ci­at­ing her­self from the raw pain. I re­ally be­lieve that’s what Lon­don feels.”

Breed’s ac­tions in the com­ing weeks will take place un­der an in­tense spot­light. Ac­tivists and po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents are poised to pounce on any re­form ini­tia­tive per­ceived as a half­mea­sure or com­pro­mise with po­lice. And Breed’s pub­lic pro­file has risen sig­nif­i­cantly re­cently be­cause of the na­tional at­ten­tion brought on by the city’s early re­sponse and ap­par­ent suc­cess con­fronting the COVID­19 pan­demic.

This month, Breed, 45, un­veiled her vi­sion for chang­ing polic­ing in San Francisco. Chief among them: re­plac­ing of­fi­cers with so­cial work­ers and be­hav­ioral health ex­perts on ser­vice calls that don’t in­volve crim­i­nal acts or threats to pub­lic safety.

Breed and Su­per­vi­sor Shamann Wal­ton are also lead­ing an ini­tia­tive to take money from the Po­lice De­part­ment’s bud­get and re­di­rect it to the city’s Black com­mu­nity. Breed has not pre­vi­ously shown a pen­chant for de­fund­ing the Po­lice De­part­ment: For years she has sup­ported in­creases to po­lice staffing, adding foot pa­trols, and build­ing re­la­tion­ships be­tween po­lice and the com­mu­ni­ties where they work.

How deeply Breed reaches into the po­lice bud­get — par­tic­u­larly at a time when the city is fac­ing a nearly $2 bil­lion bud­get deficit brought on by the pan­demic — will likely be used as a yard­stick of her com­mit­ment to mean­ing­ful changes to polic­ing.

“Bud­gets re­flect our val­ues,” said Kay­lah Wil­liams, co­chair of the Afroso­cial­ists Cau­cus within the Demo­cratic So­cial­ists of Amer­ica’s San Francisco chap­ter, and for­mer cam­paign man­ager for District At­tor­ney Ch­esa Boudin.

“I hope Mayor Breed uses her unique back­ground to guide her con­science when de­cid­ing what to do with the fu­ture of our city and the bud­get of the San Francisco Po­lice De­part­ment,” said Wil­liams. “And I’d love for her to lis­ten par­tic­u­larly to young, Black voices in our city who are de­mand­ing real change and real re­form.”

Her work is cut out for her: Last year, roughly 45% of po­lice use­of­force in­ci­dents in San Francisco in­volved African Amer­i­cans, though Black peo­ple make up up just 5% of the city’s pop­u­la­tion.

Breed’s per­sonal nar­ra­tive — her rise from poverty to be­come the most pow­er­ful per­son in San Francisco — was a cen­tral theme of her 2018 may­oral cam­paign. But she has been more cir­cum­spect about pub­licly shar­ing a de­tailed por­trait of her for­ma­tive years, which were marked by har­row­ing ex­pe­ri­ences that may be brought to bear on dis­cus­sions around po­lice re­form.

Even some of her clos­est ad­vis­ers were taken aback to learn that a cousin of Breed’s was shot and killed by San Francisco po­lice over a decade ago. She re­vealed the episode dur­ing a re­cent rally protest­ing po­lice vi­o­lence after Ge­orge Floyd’s death at the hands of white of­fi­cers in Min­neapo­lis.

Charles Breed was killed in a shootout with po­lice in 2006. Two of­fi­cers, re­spond­ing to re­ports of gun­fire near Bayview and Flora streets in the Sil­ver Ter­race neigh­bor­hood, or­dered him to stop for ques­tion­ing. Ac­cord­ing to po­lice re­ports, Charles Breed ran up to the of­fi­cers’ pa­trol car, pulled a gun from his waist­band and opened fire. He was sus­pected of killing two peo­ple who were found dead that same night in a car on Flora Street. A “large bag of sus­pected nar­cotics” was found at the feet of the slain driver, ac­cord­ing to in­ves­ti­ga­tors’ re­ports.

“He was a Breed,” the mayor said. “My fam­ily doesn’t have the best his­tory with law en­force­ment.”

Breed also has a brother, Napoleon Brown, serv­ing a 44­year pri­son sen­tence for manslaugh­ter and armed rob­bery. She and other mem­bers of her fam­ily have sought to win an early re­lease for him, largely on the grounds that he no longer poses a threat to the com­mu­nity and would be well sup­ported at home. Out­go­ing Gov. Jerry Brown de­nied the fam­ily’s most re­cent re­quest for a re­duced sen­tence. Breed’s sis­ter died years ago of a drug over­dose.

The tu­mult within her fam­ily was a mi­cro­cosm of the strug­gles of so many of those she grew up with, she said.

As a young Black woman raised in a neigh­bor­hood riven with vi­o­lence, poverty and a near­con­stant, hec­tor­ing po­lice pres­ence, Breed de­vel­oped an un­easy and mis­trust­ful re­la­tion­ship with law en­force­ment.

“We were re­ally un­com­fort­able with the po­lice in gen­eral,” she said. “It seemed like they had it out for the African

Amer­i­can boys and men who might have seemed like they were the ones deal­ing drugs — rolling around in nice cars and liv­ing the life a lit­tle bit. There was al­ways drama.”

But Breed’s mis­giv­ings about the po­lice were tem­pered in part by the com­pas­sion of­fi­cers showed to her aunt, who suf­fered from mental ill­ness and was prone to dis­so­cia­tive fits of rage.

“A lot of peo­ple in the com­mu­nity took care of my aunt, but the po­lice were very, very good to her. They’d talk her down and bring her home. They treated her with a lot of love and re­spect,” Breed said. When it came to po­lice in those days, “I saw both sides. There was al­ways this dis­com­fort, but there was this com­pas­sion, too.”

Vi­o­lence in Breed’s com­mu­nity hit an apex in the late 1990s, after she fin­ished col­lege. Her fam­ily’s phone rang con­stantly, bring­ing news that an­other young man had been killed.

“It was scary and it was re­ally sad. I went to more fu­ner­als than I can count, and it was al­ways African Amer­i­can men,” Breed said. “Part of what was so hurt­ful is that I hung out with and cared for and loved all of th­ese peo­ple.”

There was a des­per­ate sense in the neigh­bor­hood, Breed said, to find ways to heal a com­mu­nity shat­tered by vi­o­lence — and to get law en­force­ment to take that vi­o­lence se­ri­ously.

“The sad part about what was hap­pen­ing in the Black com­mu­nity is the pain we deal with with th­ese homi­cides — re­gard­less of who pulls the trig­ger — it’s been ig­nored.” Breed said. “We want (the po­lice) to come when we call, and to take homi­cides in our neigh­bor­hood as se­ri­ously in any other neigh­bor­hood.”

Breed started sit­ting in on meet­ings or­ga­nized by Leonard “Lefty” Gor­don, a com­mu­nity or­ga­nizer in the Western Ad­di­tion, that aimed to bro­ker bet­ter re­la­tion­ships be­tween the neigh­bor­hood and the po­lice by get­ting both groups to get to know each other. The meet­ings led to com­mu­nity ac­tiv­i­ties like mid­night bas­ket­ball games.

Progress was achingly slow,

Breed said, but watch­ing the gap be­tween the neigh­bor­hood and the po­lice nar­row made her a dis­ci­ple of com­mu­nity polic­ing, an at­tempt to build trust be­tween law en­force­ment and the neigh­bor­hoods they serve by build­ing a first­name­ba­sis fa­mil­iar­ity.

Com­mu­nity polic­ing is cen­tral to Breed’s vi­sion of im­prov­ing re­la­tions be­tween San Francisco’s po­lice and cit­i­zenry. She hosted com­mu­nity gath­er­ings be­tween neigh­bor­hood kids and po­lice while she was ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the African Amer­i­can Arts and Cul­ture Com­plex. Crack­ing the hard­ened mis­trust and an­i­mos­ity be­tween po­lice and the Western Ad­di­tion and Fill­more neigh­bor­hoods was ad­mit­tedly dif­fi­cult, Breed said.

“To be clear, things were not pretty at first. It doesn’t mean kids are go­ing to love the po­lice right away. But the po­lice of­fi­cers were grow­ing up with th­ese kids, and as they grew up with them, they got to know them.” Over time, the prac­tice “pre­vented a lot of stuff from hap­pen­ing that could have been far worse.”

Breed re­called one ex­am­ple when com­mu­nity polic­ing made a crit­i­cal dif­fer­ence. It hap­pened when of­fi­cers con­fronted a young man walk­ing with a shot­gun tucked in his pants.

“The of­fi­cers knew the kid and didn’t think he was go­ing to shoot,” Breed said. “They called his name, and he reached down to take the gun and throw it on the ground. If there was any of­fi­cer who didn’t know that this kid was in my pro­gram, he would have been shot and killed. Pe­riod.”

There is lit­tle con­clu­sive aca­demic data around the ef­fi­cacy of com­mu­nity polic­ing, and some po­lice­re­form ad­vo­cates are wary that it can too eas­ily be­come “co­pa­ganda” — a su­per­fi­cial pub­lic­re­la­tions cam­paign that doesn’t reach down to sys­temic prob­lems or make neigh­bor­hoods safer.

“You need buy­in from the whole de­part­ment for some­thing like that,” said crim­i­nal de­fense at­tor­ney and Po­lice Com­mis­sioner John Ha­masaki. “If you don’t change the cul­ture of polic­ing, it goes nowhere. We need the mayor, with her bi­og­ra­phy and her his­tory, lead­ing the move­ment and mak­ing sure it doesn’t get hi­jacked or mis­di­rected, or it’ll be putting a pretty bow on the same ugly pack­age.”

As mayor, Breed’s track record on po­lice re­form strikes many as in­con­sis­tent. She en­dorsed Michael Bloomberg for pres­i­dent, which con­fused po­lit­i­cal ob­servers in part be­cause of Bloomberg’s record. As mayor of New York City, Bloomberg em­braced “stopand­frisk,” which al­lowed of­fi­cers to ques­tion and search peo­ple with­out a clear rea­son. The tac­tic over­whelm­ingly tar­geted peo­ple of color.

Re­cently, the Board of Su­per­vi­sors re­jected two of Breed’s nom­i­nees for the Po­lice Com­mis­sion. Su­per­vi­sors ex­plic­itly said they would only ap­prove can­di­dates with records of po­lice­re­form ad­vo­cacy. One nom­i­nee, Nancy Tung, was cast as a tra­di­tional “law and or­der” can­di­date when she ran un­suc­cess­fully for district at­tor­ney last year.

Un­der­pin­ning dis­cus­sions around po­lice re­form is a gnaw­ing ques­tion in San Francisco pol­i­tics: Who has le­git­i­macy to speak for the city’s Black com­mu­nity?

Black lead­ers who sup­port Breed have re­pu­di­ated ef­forts, par­tic­u­larly by white pro­gres­sives, to take the lead on pol­icy is­sues af­fect­ing African Amer­i­cans.

“There is a priv­i­leged per­spec­tive that many pro­test­ers bring to the ta­ble,” Co­hen said. “It’s a dif­fer­ence be­tween the­ory and prac­tice. They have a the­ory that all po­lice are bad, but in prac­tice, Lon­don knows they aren’t. It’s one thing to read a book about the new Jim Crow. It’s an­other thing to live it and see it man­i­fest in your life.”

Breed in­vited scorn from some of those ac­tivists when she com­pared a re­cent bois­ter­ous, anti­po­lice­vi­o­lence protest out­side her apart­ment to some­thing reminiscen­t of a Ku Klux Klan lynch­ing. She was ac­cused of us­ing her iden­tity as a cud­gel to cas­ti­gate the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment and re­sist calls to take mean­ing­ful ac­tion against po­lice bru­tal­ity.

Asked about that protest, Breed fumed at the no­tion that peo­ple who haven’t seen the world through her eyes could cas­ti­gate her on how to reimag­ine law en­force­ment so it would no longer cause dis­pro­por­tion­ate harm to Black peo­ple.

“I don’t mind that there are peo­ple who have a dif­fer­ence of opin­ion with my poli­cies and want to ex­press them­selves. We’re talk­ing about white peo­ple com­ing to the Black mayor’s house, mak­ing de­mands and not even see­ing his­tor­i­cally what that looks like. It’s be­cause of their priv­i­lege,” Breed said.

“They have to be the ones who have to be the sav­ior for Black peo­ple ... when we want to lead for our­selves based on our ex­pe­ri­ence. Their ex­pe­ri­ences come nowhere near ours,” she con­tin­ued. “All of sud­den there are peo­ple who know best (around po­lice re­form) when they have no idea what it’s like to live in it.”

The next few months will be crit­i­cal ones for Breed’s ad­min­is­tra­tion — one that has so far ca­reened from cri­sis to cri­sis, from the the cor­rup­tion scan­dal en­gulf­ing City Hall, to the COVID­19 pan­demic, to the city’s shat­tered econ­omy.

But it is on the mat­ter of po­lice re­form — par­tic­u­larly how much money to shunt away from the Po­lice De­part­ment — that Breed has the most author­ity — both the le­gal author­ity and, as she and her pro­po­nents ar­gue, the moral author­ity — to ef­fect last­ing change.

“I went to more fu­ner­als than I can count, and it was al­ways African Amer­i­can men.”

Mayor Lon­don Breed

San­ti­ago Me­jia / The Chron­i­cle

In honor of Ge­orge Floyd, Mayor Lon­don Breed takes a knee dur­ing a June 9 rally at San Francisco City Hall.

Scott Straz­zante / The Chron­i­cle

Mayor Lon­don Breed speaks, with ac­tor Jamie Foxx (right) at her side, dur­ing a June 1 rally at San Francisco City Hall in re­sponse to Ge­orge Floyd’s death at the hands of Min­neapo­lis po­lice.

Lea Suzuki / The Chron­i­cle 2017

Breed with Po­lice Chief Bill Scott: The San Francisco mayor says she’s seen good ef­fects from com­mu­nity polic­ing.

Cal­i­for­nia De­part­ment of Cor­rec­tions and Re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion 2018

Napoleon Brown, the mayor’s brother, is part­way through a 44­year pri­son sen­tence for manslaugh­ter and armed rob­bery.

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