It is becoming increasingly clear that political and law enforcement leaders in San Francisco have decided that one of the main mechanisms for dealing with vulnerable citizens is an antagonistic police presence and harsh responses to perceived crime. This is an ill-conceived approach for all, but particularly problematic and wrongheaded when it comes to kids.
The latest example happened on July 8, when skateboarders and crowds gathered for the Dolores Park Hill Bomb that had been organized by the city’s skating community. Little did they know, San Francisco police officers were already at the site waiting for them. One officer reportedly told a bystander, “There’s gonna be no skating here! Zero tolerance for the hill bomb!”
Instead of focusing on de-escalation, however, the police treated young people like criminals. In the chaos that ensued that night, police clad in riot gear pointed weapons at the kids, eventually rushing into the crowd and blocking intersections, trapping kids between rows of armed police officers, and arresting everyone inside the perimeter. Some youth were held in handcuffs for multiple hours on the cold street.
The San Francisco Police Association made a highly-edited video and series of tweets proudly declaring they had shown restraint toward the teens. They also announced that 32 adults and 81 juveniles were arrested.
Many are asking questions about the aggressive police presence at the event, including: How much would the militarized police response cost? Were the young people’s constitutional rights respected by the police? Why would police focus on young people when the city faces so many other significant problems?
While all these questions are valid, we can focus on what we do know:
Eighty-one juveniles were arrested and research shows that even one arrest harms a young person’s future, increasing the likelihood their grades will drop; that they will eventually drop out of school; and decreasing economic attainment throughout their lives.
Research also shows that after arrest, youth of color are more likely than white youth to be further punished by the legal system. For example, Black juveniles who have been arrested are more likely to be referred to a juvenile court than are white juveniles. Additionally, Black youth are less likely to get sent to diversion programs than white youth. Given the pictures and videos that are circulating — including the ones the San Francisco Police Association used in their video — along with the police statement, the majority of the hill bomb participants were youth of color. We need to be clear about exactly who we are condemning to these negative impacts of police contact and arrest.
Because we know that being arrested increases the chances of youth being detained, even if for a short time, we have to look at the consequences this type of police response could set off in young people’s lives. If these youth are indeed sent to court and detained (either pre- or post-hearing), there are additional negative life impacts including increased likelihood of adult depressive symptoms, even if they are jailed for just a few days or weeks. For those that fall further into the system and are jailed between one month and one year, chances for worse adult health overall increase. And for those jailed for more than one year, in addition to the impacts above, there is a likelihood of increased suicidal thoughts.
All of this research describes the ways juvenile incarceration harms individual young people, and yet does not begin to address the dangerous conditions at many carceral facilities that include abuse and neglect by staff — which has led to the deaths of some incarcerated youth like CJ Lofton, Gynnya McMillen, and Cornelius Frederick. San Francisco’s Juvenile Hall is not an exception to these trends. Youth who have been imprisoned within its walls report experiencing excessive physical violence by staff, being shackled unnecessarily, and being put alone in cells for extended periods of time similar to solitary confinement.
San Francisco’s Juvenile Hall was set to close due to a massive drop in youth crime rates and the exorbitant cost; it can cost over $1 million dollars annually to incarcerate one young person. But with the increase in arrests and decrease in diversions under District Attorney Brooke Jenkins’ reign, the future of San Francisco Juvenile Hall is in limbo, even after a 14-year-old attempted suicide there in January.
I have spent over two decades working with currently and formerly incarcerated youth. Many tell stories of minor offenses being their first interaction with the law. But as they have to take time off of school to go to court, pay tickets and other court fees, and get more involved in the system, many note becoming disconnected from positive social experiences in their schools and communities. Incarcerated youth described how adults in their lives treated them as criminals instead of young people who made mistakes.
How to respond to a community event that is unsanctioned and sometimes dangerous is important to consider. Any police contact can negatively impact the life outcomes of young people, so a non-police response would be more generative. There were also many alternatives the police could have engaged in order to redirect the energy of the young people. If citizens really believe the hill bomb should have been shut down, that shutdown should be one where youth are treated as human beings in need of support, not harassed and arrested by police. These are all choices we can rethink. We can decide that the ways we engage youth, even ones who make mistakes, should not bring more trauma and harm into their lives by entangling them in the legal system.
Even though the DA is now announcing most of the charges will be dropped, damage has been done. We have years of research illustrating how carceral responses to youth behavior are not productive for them or society. Given this reality, why would we choose to target a group of young people and antagonize them with police? Why wouldn’t we focus on harm reduction and community care? Young people must have space to make mistakes and address them without life-altering consequences.
When some of its most vulnerable citizens disobeyed orders, San Francisco city leaders and the police decided to respond violently. Yet as a city, San Francisco can demand places and programs for young people to gather. We can insist the city take the money now spent on potential arrests and stays in juvenile hall and re-invest these resources in education, mental health care, and community-based alternatives for youth who need more support. Ultimately, we can decide we want to change the way we respond to youth who make mistakes and meet them with services instead of punishment.