Breed’s quest for change
S.F.’S Black mayor draws on complex history with police
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
In honor of George Floyd, Mayor London Breed takes a knee during a June 9 rally at San Francisco City Hall.
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.
Breed with Police Chief Bill Scott: The San Francisco mayor says she’s seen good effects from community policing.
Napoleon Brown, the mayor’s brother, is partway through a 44year prison sentence for manslaughter and armed robbery.