Public Defender's Arrest Shows that “Black Lives Matter” Needs to Be Heard in SF
Tens of thousands of marchers have taken to the streets in the months since the killings of Mike Brown and Eric Garner at the hands of police declaring Black Lives Matter and demanding accountability for police who act outside of the law.
Last week in San Francisco, yet another example of police abuse came to light when Jami Tillotson, a deputy public defender, was arrested outside a courtroom in the Hall of Justice while attempting to protect her clients’ right to counsel. SFPD officers attempted to question and photograph her clients, two young African American men, outside the presence of their attorney. When Tillotson objected, a plainclothes officer arrested her for resisting arrest, though she was simply trying to do her job as an attorney.
This incident is shocking on many levels. We at the ACLU believe that this incident, as captured on video, raises issues that go beyond the criminal charge that was pending against Tillotson until police announced yesterday it was being dropped. Indeed, it raises new questions about the SFPD’s long and troubled history of racial profiling and makes clear that oversight of the SFPD is as necessary as ever.
In a letter sent yesterday afternoon to the San Francisco Police Commission demanding that the commission launch in inquiry into the incident, ACLU Legal Director Alan Schlosser wrote that:
The spectacle of two African American young men being targeted by police within a public space inside a courthouse without their lawyer present, and then having that lawyer handcuffed and carted away for trying to advise them, raises the specter that other young men of color are being similarly targeted for intrusive investigations and photography in the community where attorneys are not on the scene.
The numbers paint a bleak picture
Despite making up just six percent of the city’s population as of 2013, Black people are more likely to be arrested or stopped in San Francisco.
In an ACLU study from 2013, Black people in San Francisco were more than four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession as whites, yet there was no difference in use among both groups of San Franciscans. SFPD underreported arrest rates for Latinos and Asians from 1999 until after 2012, when a study unveiled their problematic reporting system that lead to over a decade of inaccurate reporting of arrest racial calculations. SFPD is contributing to the mistrust in the community, and to the perception of the implicit racial biases inherent to the criminal justice system.
The SFPD needs greater oversight from the Police Commission. The commission has the responsibility to hold the police department to the highest standards and to assure that officers are following constitutional limits. Policy-making is the role of the police commission, and by setting and enforcing general orders, it is their charter-mandated duty to set and enforce policy for the department. The ACLU calls on the commission to address these concerns and request a full inquiry into Ms. Tillotson’s arrest while trying to protect her clients from questioning.
ACLU letter to San Francisco Police Commission (Feb. 4, 2015)
Carey Lamprecht works in the Legal-Policy Department of the ACLU of Northern California.