December 18, 2021

Is the Tide Shifting on Attitudes about Crime?


Dear PERF member,

A few days ago, I got a phone call from Luther Reynolds, the Police Chief in Charleston, SC. Luther previously was Assistant Chief in Montgomery County, MD, where many of us got to know him. His passion and thoughtfulness always come through, even when he is being challenged in ways that seem daunting. As many of you know, Luther is undergoing chemotherapy and will be going to Houston for an operation. Last week, members of Charleston’s SWAT team shaved their heads to show support for their chief, and the department is conducting a fundraising campaign for the American Cancer Society.

But Luther didn’t call me to talk about himself or his health.

“Hey Chuck,” he said, “Did you see that video of the San Francisco mayor? You didn’t?  I’ve got to send it to you.”

That’s Luther Reynolds – upbeat, hopeful, and taking time out of his life’s challenges to make sure I saw a video he thought I’d find interesting. Classic Luther Reynolds.

And so I looked at the video, and wow. You have to watch this video. It could be a game changer. Mayor London Breed announced a series of public safety initiatives involving the police as well as drug treatment and other social service providers, public works, and other agencies. 

Many of these problems are especially bad in the Tenderloin neighborhood, the Mayor noted.

Mayor London Breed

“It’s time to rein in the criminals who are destroying our city,” Mayor Breed said. The Police Department has begun making arrests of “the people who have been holding this neighborhood hostage,” she said. “Our criminal justice system has a responsibility to hold them accountable. When the police make an arrest, the residents of the Tenderloin should not see that same person back on the streets the next day, dealing drugs right in their neighborhood.”

“[These problems] come to an end when we take the steps to be more aggressive with law enforcement, [and] less tolerant of all the BS that has destroyed our city,” the Mayor added. “We are past the point where what we see is even remotely acceptable.”

The mayor indicated that people on the streets with addiction problems will no longer be given the option of rejecting efforts to help them. “We are not going to just walk by and let someone use [illegal drugs] in broad daylight on the streets,” she said. In the future, she said, drug users will be given a choice of “going to the location we have identified for them [for treatment] or going to jail.”

“All of our residents, our workers, and everyone who visits our city should feel safe, no matter what part of town they are in,” the Mayor said. “I know San Francisco is a compassionate city. We are a city that prides ourselves on second chances and rehabilitation. But we’re not a city where anything goes. Our compassion should not be mistaken for weakness or indifference.”

Is the pendulum swinging back toward sanity?

This got me thinking that we might be returning to a sense of sanity on crime.  With all the focus on the COVID pandemic, I think the sharp increases in violent crime over the last year haven’t gotten as much attention as they normally would.

A few months ago, the FBI announced that homicides increased almost 30% in 2020. That was the biggest single-year increase ever recorded since the FBI began tracking these statistics. You’d have to go back to 1997 to find the homicide rate we’re facing today.

Source: FBI

And as Mayor Breed noted, it’s not just about violent crime. She’s also focusing on illegal drug use, including the opioids and other drugs that have been plaguing San Francisco.  Last month, we learned that nationally, fatal drug overdoses rose to more than 100,000 in the 12 months ending last April – an increase of 29% over the year before. And more than 75,000 of those deaths were due to fentanyl and other opioids.

Again, I’m afraid these appalling statistics got lost under the avalanche of COVID news. But doing something about drugs on the streets of San Francisco will reduce the number of people who overdose and die because of fentanyl. This is not insignificant. 

In her speech the other day, Mayor Breed emphasized that it’s possible to be compassionate and to support progressive policing, while also recognizing that community members are being victimized in ways we haven’t seen in years.

I think we know that police reform and being laser-focused on crime are not mutually exclusive. Until recently, we had more than 20 years of crime reductions, and we have learned how to focus on precision policing. We identify that small number of offenders who are responsible for a disproportionate number of crimes. We focus on them, because focusing on the chronic offenders and locations where crime is occurring is part of what contributed to 20 years of crime reductions. 

It will be interesting to follow how this approach plays out in San Francisco.

This week, our thoughts go to Luther Reynolds. We think the world of Luther, and pray he will meet this challenge with the optimism and determination he is so well known for.

And my best wishes go to all of you during the holidays and New Year.  

PERF Trending will take the holidays off. (Who wants to hear from me on Christmas morning or New Year’s Day?)  See you in January.