SFPD racism is systemic: In wake of Mario Woods’ killing, SFSU public health students call for chief’s dismissal and alternatives to police

by the Public Health Organization of Graduate Students (PHOGS) at San Francisco State University

The Public Health Organization of Graduate Students at San Francisco State University condemns the actions of the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) in the unjust shooting of Mario Woods, a young African American man who was a resident of Bayview Hunters Point, on Dec. 2, 2015. The current situation in which SFPD officers kill community members with impunity is intolerable.

“Mario Woods” – Poster: Miles Stryker
“Mario Woods” – Poster: Miles Stryker

The circumstances of Mario Wood’s death were strikingly similar to those of Alex Nieto and Amilcar Perez-Lopez by SFPD, to the death of LaQuan McDonald – shot 16 times by Chicago Police Department officers – and to countless (and largely uncounted) people of color across the country killed by police. While police departments in this case and others insist that officers acted out of fear for their lives, videos and autopsy reports suggest otherwise.

Rather, police killings of people of color are a national epidemic, indicative of deeply rooted and systemic racism endemic to police forces across the country. Data from the state’s Open Justice Portal and the U.K. Guardian’s The Counted website show that, since 2005, 24 people have been killed by SFPD officers during the process of arrest, including six in 2015.

Those killed are disproportionately people of color and individuals suffering from mental illness. While Black individuals comprise less than 6 percent of the population in San Francisco, Open Justice Portal data shows that they account for 33 percent of killings by police officers. Likewise, an analysis conducted by KQED found that mental health issues have played a role in nearly 60 percent of killings by SFPD.

These incidents don’t stand alone but are consistent with the lack of accountability within the department around racist attitudes, behaviors and policies. In a particularly egregious example, an unrelated 2015 federal corruption case uncovered text messages exchanged among 14 long-time SFPD officers who denigrated Mexicans and Filipinos, calling them “monkeys” and “half breeds,” calling for the lynching of African Americans and celebrating “white power” – about which the department knew and did nothing.

Police killings of people of color are a national epidemic, indicative of deeply rooted and systemic racism endemic to police forces across the country.

Rather than being a case of “bad apples,” racism within the police department and the impunity with which it is protected is systemic. Policing is historically rooted in racism and classism, which are still evident today in many ways, including the increased scrutiny and harassment of people of color and the poor in neighborhoods most impacted by gentrification.

Overpolicing – and the police murders that follow – as a tool to gentrify, or re-people, what were once communities of color is an issue that has brought the Bayview Hunters Point and Mission neighborhoods, both under intense gentrification pressure, together to protest the murder of Mario Woods. This scene outside City Hall after hundreds turned out for a rally, vigil and the Police Commission meeting was co-sponsored by The Last 3 Percent, referring to the remaining Black population, which some sources count as only 3 percent of San Franciscans. The names of police murder victims are chalked on the sidewalk.
Overpolicing – and the police murders that follow – as a tool to gentrify, or re-people, what were once communities of color is an issue that has brought the Bayview Hunters Point and Mission neighborhoods, both under intense gentrification pressure, together to protest the murder of Mario Woods. This scene outside City Hall after hundreds turned out for a rally, vigil and the Police Commission meeting was co-sponsored by The Last 3 Percent, referring to the remaining Black population, which some sources count as only 3 percent of San Franciscans. The names of police murder victims are chalked on the sidewalk.

Police violence is a public health issue and our field must respond. Prominent public health organizations such as the National Association of City and County Health Officials have issued statements recognizing that the impacts of police violence are far-reaching, including not only the deaths of individuals killed by police, but also the ripple effects that these deaths have on the victim’s loved ones and broader community. Family members suffer grief and trauma and are left shouldering the expense of an unexpected funeral.

Those who witness, or hear of, police violence may experience trauma, chronic stress or anxiety, which can result in a range of negative physical and mental health outcomes. These impacts are exacerbated by historical racial and economic inequity experienced by Black, Latino and other communities of color in San Francisco, in a context where our city is being reshaped and reformed to cater to a wealthier and whiter population.

Police violence is a public health issue and our field must respond.

As public health students, we see community-based programs, including conflict mediation and mental health crisis intervention, as promising approaches that can prevent or replace police intervention in circumstances that have led to the use of excessive force by SFPD. We also see “upstream” preventative approaches – such as economic development and provision of affordable housing and educational equity – as critical in bringing about economic and racial justice. In contrast, overpolicing erodes health and well-being.

In light of the analysis presented above, we demand the following actions:

  • In solidarity with community members fighting for justice on behalf of Mario Woods, we demand that the San Francisco Police Commission immediately suspend and independently investigate the officers involved in the death of Mario Woods and dismiss Police Chief Greg Suhr.
  • We also demand that Mayor Ed Lee and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors redirect general funds from the SFPD into community-based alternatives to policing, including mental health intervention, violence prevention, and conflict mediation programs, in the communities currently most affected by police violence.
  • We further demand that Mayor Ed Lee and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors prioritize city resources to mitigate economic and racial inequity, including investing in job and educational opportunities and affordable housing in communities of color.

The Public Health Organization of Graduate Students (PHOGS) at San Francisco State University can be reached at SfStatePHOGSpublicity@gmail.com, and visit them at Facebook.com/sfstatephogs.

The turnout was so large for the Dec. 9 Police Commission meeting, the first since Mario Woods’ execution by SFPD on Dec. 2, that people filled the meeting room, an overflow room and the hallway outside, so the commissioners could hear their chants. Protesters called for the removal of Police Chief Greg Suhr and implicated the role of Mayor Ed Lee in forcing gentrification-related violence on the last Blacks remaining in the city, comprising only 3 percent of the population.