San Francisco police: worse than irrelevant
I live “deliberately” in San Francisco as a novice insurrectionist, an unlikely old lady activist spiritually bivouacked as close to the City by the Bay — via the Internet — as Henry David Thoreau had been to Walden Pond. If I lived in San Francisco physically, I would most likely end up in California’s Chowchilla women’s prison for civil disobedience.
Prison would not matter much, not to me anyway. “Place” has become a state of mind ever since the San Francisco Police Department mercilessly gave my son Dylan Yount such vicious short shrift on February 16, 2010. He died there in a brutal public suicide baiting in Hallidie Plaza on that Shrove Tuesday for being in urgent need of psychiatric care, the epitome of the impulsive suicidal.
Since then, I have gone from being as fragile as a communion wafer to becoming a tenderfoot militant. Like Thoreau, who followed the dictates of his conscience by refusing to pay his 1846 Massachusetts poll tax, I would not pay taxes that supported the police or “lend myself to the wrong which I condemn”: the irrelevancy of the SFPD.
Combine a “city bureaucracy dedicated to ass covering” (SF journalist Matt Smith) with the stranglehold the SFPD has put on city government to realize its priority to be “the highest paid police department in the country” (past police union president Gary Delagnes) and you get a roadmap to Hell.
Sooner or later, the public is bound to rebel. In 2009, the year before my son’s cruel death, the average SFPD hourly wage was 67 percent higher than the national average. It is wider today. Routine salaries of over a half million dollars are common. Starting salaries ranging from $88,000 to $112,000 and retirement incomes at 90 percent of full-time salary are the newest SFPD financial parameters. Such largesse does not translate into better protection and service, though, especially when it comes to the mentally ill.
It comes down to problems with relevancy. U.S. crime is at its lowest levels in decades even as the number of folks with mental illnesses is increasing. Director of the National Alliance of Mental Health, Ron Honberg, reports that one in four Americans will experience a mental health problem in any given year, and studies by the Centers for Disease Control show that almost half of us will experience a mental disorder sometime during our lifetimes. Although there is much internal professional bickering about what these statistics mean, the sad truth is that we are becoming “sicker” as a society. We are more anxious than we were a quarter of a century ago, and mental illnesses continue to manifest themselves at earlier and earlier stages. Even so, we cut $4 billion from the mental health system in 2008 with more cuts to undoubtedly follow. The situation this will create for law enforcement will become critical.
It is astonishing to discover that a city with the highest rate of involuntary psychiatric holds (5150’s) in California and approximately 100 suicides each year is not already more vocal about violent police encounters with the mentally ill. While both the 2001 and 2011 San Francisco Police Commission Reports mandate SFPD Crisis Intervention Training, this instruction is always put “on hold,” followed by the same excuse that the department is unable to fund it. Never mind that over 2,000 U.S. police departments in 40 states have already implemented CIT training — with much less money.
Consider the awesome Memphis, Tennessee, Police Department. After a tragic 1988 shooting of a mentally ill man, the MPD literally wrote the book for achieving successful outcomes in encounters with the mentally ill. An innovative police-based first responder CIT program, the Memphis Model was developed 25 years ago and draws on community collaboration for resources. Enthusiastically endorsed by scores of national mental health organizations, statistically proven so effective it has been adopted in 40 states and serves as the mandatory statewide response in 7, the Memphis Model has been characterized in perhaps its highest accolade as, “Policing for the 21st century.” In the respected and much-appreciated MPD, 225 trained CIT officers stand ready to provide 24/7 service with dignity. Clearly it is more than training.
Now consider the flush sister SFPD. According to the BSU officer directly responsible for overseeing the SFPD Hostage and Crisis Negotiating team, there were 30-35 trained negotiators in 2010. This behavioral science unit officer is a 31-year veteran who holds a Master’s Degree in counseling psychology with an emphasis in marriage and family counseling. The sergeant in charge of coordinating crisis intervention training for the eleventh largest police force in America is the wife of an SFPD officer, the daughter of another.
Besides nepotism, other problems point to SFPD irrelevancy. San Francisco residents probably felt faint as they learned when the SFPD first officer email accounts were established — 2011! Although the “strapped” SFPD might hope their pitiful reliance on a neolithic communication system would garner public sympathy, most will not buy it. Seats that should have gone long ago to communication techies are routinely warmed by six-figure cops no longer able, or willing. to perform other duties in a selfish “featherbedding culture” (Matt Smith) that benefits “the family” at the expense of everyone else.
Truth is, the SFPD is an anachronism, a stone-aged department disconnected from modern service and protection, hobbled by poor leadership and ill-conceived priorities. Salary has been the only priority, and while top brass might doggedly believe nothing could ever derail this Gravy Train, they might be wrong. In the forty-four months I have spent waiting for a resolution — now in our second attempt for a wrongful death trial in Yount v City and County of San Francisco — I know the SFPD cannot just keep shooting the mentally ill or stand by “snickering” until the victims jump. There will be repercussions. First responders — who expect huge salaries and then show up as bystanders — are systematically drumming themselves out of business.
As I wait, captive, for that other “c” word, closure, many have suggested that without the police presence that day, the crowd might have regulated itself. Many have speculated that cooler heads might have prevailed to save my son. Many have flat-out declared that San Franciscans are better off never summoning the police to deal with the mentally ill. I certainly do regret that the police were there. They were much worse than irrelevant. Their uniformed presence and selective enforcement of California law furnished the official validation the hecklers needed. The police sealed my son’s fate by shrieking he was a fool, identifying the suicide baiting as entertainment. They established the tone and set the stage for death.
The death has demonstrated how cruel humans can be to one another, but the end of Dylan’s story is yet unwritten. Of course I want our day in court because I believe what happened is neither what society expects nor wants. Regardless of what happens, though, what we do about what happened there will become the rest of the story. It was bad enough that it happened — for me. That the police and city continue to defend it is even worse — for everyone else. Do we accept this conundrum: We cannot break the law because we are the law?
Like Thoreau going out to Walden Pond to discover whether life was “mean” or “sublime” and vowing to publish the truth about what he found, I, too, have been plunged “deeply” into this story, and I, too, will publish the truth, and it will either elevate or diminish us.