"Real public safety problems"
Someone said the quiet part out loud
Every now and then, someone with power says the quiet part out loud. Sometimes the thing the powerful person says reflects malicious intentions of people in power, such as when a Sheriff and County Commissioner were caught on a secret tape a few days ago discussing “hanging Black people by a creek.” The most powerful of these instances in recent memory was the moment that one of Nixon’s advisors discussed the true reasons the political elite began the 50-year War on Drugs.
But sometimes these moments are more subtle. Someone in power isn’t necessarily caught on tape saying something overtly nefarious. Instead, in a candid moment, they say something to a journalist that they believe to be true and fine to say in public, but that is unintentionally revealing. Sometimes, the journalists themselves do not even understand or note the significance of the comment.
That is exactly what happened last week after the public learned that a high-profile murder of a prominent tech executive in San Francisco was not committed by a homeless person but was instead allegedly committed by another tech entrepreneur. In the aftermath of this revelation, a state senator in California told the New York Times that the brutal stabbing murder doesn’t “have anything to do with” the “real public safety problems” in San Francisco.
These moments can be important public teaching moments because modern news has become so effective at masking the primary function of the punishment bureaucracy: to protect the wealth and power of people who own things. These moments of unintentional truth offer a chance for people to see how distorted the media’s depiction of the punishment bureaucracy usually is.
As I explain below, the marketing of the punishment bureaucracy as concerned with genuine holistic public safety matters a great deal because, by letting people in power regularly apply the wrong analysis to provide the wrong answers to the wrong questions, the news media plays a role in trapping our society in a cycle of violence. We have more violence than any society should have, and then we publicly respond to this violence with more (highly profitable) state surveillance and bureaucratic brutality that only itself leads to more inequality and violence.
This cycle will be our fate unless we use moments like this to see through some core propaganda that is so effective and all-consuming that many people of good will in the news media and beyond don’t even see it.
What was so revealing about this statement?
Before I get to the critique, I want to note that this progressive SF politician, and perhaps the NYT reporters, were trying to make a helpful point in the article: the reaction by many SF tech leaders, the local media, and right-wing politicians to the murder was unhinged and based on a falsity. Many influential people used the murder to cast SF as a dystopian hellscape of homeless drug users engaging in so much random violence that “normal” people cannot function. It is good for a state senator to call out sensationalistic fear-mongering about poor people. As has been true for years, violent crime in SF is near historic lows, and SF is one of the safest big cities in the U.S.1 (See the following footnote for a small rant on the hypocrisy of the New York Times San Francisco Bureau Chief, who was one of the authors of this article but also one of the most influential purveyors of right-wing misinformation and police union fearmongering the last two years.)2
Now, however, notice the revealing part: the politician being quoted is removing this horrific murder from the city's “real public safety problems.” Do you see what the politician and the reporters are doing? This is a murder! A human being stabbed another human being to death. But it somehow doesn't count as the “real” problem because it wasn't committed by a homeless person. Because another affluent tech person has been arrested for the crime, the crime is no longer a "real public safety problem." This is fascinating on many levels.
We have a society with a lot of violence and a lot of preventable suffering. This is what motivated me to do the work that I do, and to start writing about how the news misleads us about our safety. It’s important that we try our best to understand why our society allows so many people to be harmed in ways that we can easily stop so that we can try to create a better world.
I urge you to spend a few minutes to think about what this quotation about “real” safety reveals about how elites understand the concept of “crime” and how they use “crime” discourse as a tool for ends other than the safety and well-being of everyone in our society. It is one thing to know intellectually that police spend only 4% of all their time on what they call “violent crime,” and that only 5% of all police arrests are for “violent crime.” It is one thing to know intellectually that, for decades, police chose to arrest more poor people for marijuana crimes than for all violent crime combined.3 It is one thing to know intellectually that about 90% of all people prosecutors choose to charge with crimes in our society are so poor that they can't afford to hire an attorney. It is one thing to know intellectually that elites engage in widespread criminality--violations of drug laws, fraud, tax evasion of trillions, wage theft of tens of billions, environmental pollution killing millions, police brutality, prosecutor misconduct, etc.--that other elites choose not to prosecute despite harms on a scale that dwarf the harm from crimes that they do prosecute. But it is quite another thing to see the ideology laid bare so unintentionally but so clearly: harm committed by wealthy people isn't what we mean by public safety. Or, to use this politician’s word, harm by elites isn’t “real” crime.
What are the implications?
The ideology that harms committed by the poor are “real” but harms committed by elites are not relevant to “public safety” has important implications.
First, because so much of public safety news reporting is simply repeating the claims of police and prosecutors—and telling mostly the stories brought to reporters by punishment bureaucrats—many journalists misunderstand harm and violence. They do not seem to even notice most of it. As a result, a lot of people who consume the news produced by these journalists, likewise, have a poor understanding of crime and what threats exist to their safety. This means that many significant and preventable safety problems are not treated with the level of urgency that the public discourse demands with respect to crime committed by poor people.
Second, let’s leave aside how widespread corporate crime impacts public safety for a moment and focus on interpersonal violence. Contrary to the narratives expensively assembled by police PR teams and regurgitated in the news each day, most violence in the U.S. is not stranger violence, but perpetrated by people who know the victim. (The tech entrepreneur arrested for the most recent murder knew the other tech person who was killed.) This fact alone, if widely understood among the public, would be damaging for those who rely on the current strategies our society is prioritizing in the punishment bureaucracy because it suggests a different set of theories about what might reduce that violence. But the public discourse does not widely acknowledge this fact.
This manufactured ignorance about the nature of the threats we face has consequences for what investments society makes in safety. When politicians do not consider it a "real" safety problem when people are killing each other if the killer isn’t poor or doesn’t fit a narrative about a “homeless crime wave,” they are going to be less able to help create a less violent society overall. Taking seriously why people hurt each other more in our society, especially people who know each other, would mean taking seriously some fundamental flaws in our culture and political economy. The failure of the news to accurately report on the source of most harm is therefore one reason why we see, contrary to all empirical evidence, big investments in police militarization, surveillance, SWAT teams, chemical weapons, overtime cash, drug raids, predictive policing algorithms, civil forfeiture, random traffic stops, sweeps of homeless encampments, etc. after high-profile crimes selectively publicized by police.
If one took stock of all crimes and all harms more objectively, and studied who perpetrates harms against whom, the picture changes significantly. First of all, a much more complex story emerges: the line between perpetrator and victim blurs. We are all perpetrators and victims at different times. The survivor of an armed robbery may also be a person who shoplifts deodorant. In a society with extreme levels of poverty, desperation, and lack of access to early childhood education, treatment, safe places to live, healthy food, etc… these arrangements create cycles of trauma that produce situations in which people harm each other more.
Third, if one takes seriously the entire scope of criminality and harm, it becomes clear that the police and prosecutor bureaucracies have utterly no strategy to make us safe. Indeed, even setting aside again their almost total indifference to property and environmental crimes of the wealthy that do 100s or 1000s of times more harm to our society in terms of death and economic loss, police and prosecutors mostly ignore even the kinds of interpersonal violence that they themselves purport to care about. They solve very few murders, and rates of solving murders are declining to historic lows. Even more notably, they ignore the vast bulk of certain crimes such as child sexual assault, sexual assault on college campuses, sexual assault generally, and crimes committed by jail guards, prison guards, and police themselves. The prevalence of sexual assault in our culture, and the prevalence of assaults by punishment bureaucrats on people in their custody, are among the most widespread violent crimes in our society. Indeed, for decades the police in departments across the U.S. didn’t even bother to test hundreds of thousands of rape kits, choosing instead to spend their time and money developing drug enforcement and specialized homelessness units. Most police departments do not meaningfully investigate more than a few of the alleged assaults by jail, prison, and police personnel each year. We are talking about millions of serious felony assaults in each of these ignored categories—and an even larger number of which are never even reported to the punishment bureaucracy.
The fact that most survivors of this violence, for whatever reason, do not feel that reporting this violence to the punishment bureaucracy is an appropriate course of action or perhaps even reasonably available to them, is a damning indictment of our government bureaucracy as a mechanism for producing a more safe society. If your goal were to cease these (and many other) violent harms, the fact that the bureaucracy we have developed and have funded more than any in world history isn’t even capable of learning about, let alone helping to address the social conditions that cause, these harms and crimes should be a profound moment of reckoning.
Instead of helping us reckon with why our society has not developed institutions that keep us safe, the news media is pervaded by the ideology that “real” crime is a narrow category of the crimes that police and prosecutors focus on (i.e. mostly street crimes by poor people and disproportionately low-level individual crimes by Black people, immigrants, and other marginalized groups.) This is the only way to explain typical “crime” coverage on local tv or in national newspapers.
Take San Francisco: Because of all the generalized fear-mongering about poor people and unhoused people in SF, a lot of people have been conditioned to misunderstand the nature of the risks people in that city face. I wrote last year about how this rhetoric about “crime” and “order” in San Francisco that became so popular among right-wing tech billionaires and fancy journalists in the run-up to the right-wing DA recall campaign had nothing to do with objective measurements of safety or human well-being.4 It was actually about discomfort rich people felt with the visible poverty that is the foreseeable result of profit-centric urban planning and economic development policies pushed by those elites themselves. To take just one recent example, this misaligned risk evaluation about low level “disorder” and petty crime led the Mayor of San Francisco to shut down a community health clinic that had prevented 330 overdoses, and there has now been a 41% increase in overdose deaths in the first three months of 2023. We are talking about hundreds of people dying preventable deaths in just three months.5
So, in general, we are far more likely to be harmed by either wealthy people or by people we know, and these harms have much more to do with economic, cultural, and environmental factors than they do with investments in the bureaucratic punishment apparatus: toxic masculinity; poverty; lead poisoning; lack of safe places to live; divestment from schools and libraries; abysmal preventative health care; lack of human connection, deteriorating social bonds, massive inequality and lack of effective safety regulations, etc. But because people in power are constantly suggesting that the most urgent threats come from only a tiny category of bad poor people whose ways we normal people cannot possibly understand, they are able to insinuate that increases in police power, weapons, and surveillance might make us safe from that vague threat of nameless, faceless, poor people who would do us harm.
The news media does us a disservice by not acknowledging that the things that cause us to harm each other are much more complicated and are not meaningfully connected to how many poor people San Francisco police arrest. These systemic “public safety” issues are complicated, but they are very “real.” One you see things this way, you see that much of crime discourse among politicians and journalists is not about genuine attempts to improve overall safety. Although they constantly rotate between the moral panic du jour, from violent crime generally to shoplifting to carjacking to open drug use to juvenile super-predators to car theft to fentanyl dealers to crack dealers to people released on bail to people released on parole, etc…, all of this rhetoric is really about getting the public to support increases in state repression and increasing the size and profit of the punishment bureaucracy.
The moment a crime is committed by a wealthy person who is a non-stranger, people in power and many in the media immediately cannot fathom categorizing the issue as a “real public safety problem” because they have been so conditioned to think of “public safety” as solely about the ways in which people who own things manage people who don’t own things.
None of this is new. I end this section with a quote from the legendary Jamaican-British scholar Stuart Hall about how the British media, police, and courts created a similar moral panic about “mugging” by Black immigrant youth that served the interests of entrenched wealth by leading the public in England to support increases in state repression rather than reductions in inequality in the 1970s. I’ve recommended it before, but his 1978 book Policing the Crisis, which he wrote with a collection of other leading scholars, is the best book I’ve read on these issues:
To put it crudely, the ‘moral panic’ appears to us to be one of the principal forms of ideological consciousness by means of which a ‘silent majority’ is won over to the support of increasingly coercive measures on the part of the state, and lends its legitimacy to a ‘more than usual’ exercise of control.
…. Their typical form is that of a dramatic event which focuses and triggers a local response and public disquiet…. [T]he wider powers of the control culture are both alerted (the media play a crucial role here) and mobilized (the police, the courts). The issue is then seen as ‘symptomatic’ of wider, more troubling but less concrete themes. It escalates up the hierarchy of responsibility and control, perhaps provoking an official inquiry or statement, which temporarily appeases the moral campaigners and dissipates the sense of panic… In the middle period, in the later 1960s, these panics follow faster on the heels of one another than earlier; and an increasingly amplified general ‘threat to society’ is imputed to them (drugs, hippies, the underground, pornography, long-haired students, layabouts, vandalism, football hooliganism)….
There is indeed in the later stages a ‘mapping together’ or moral panics into a general panic about social order; and such a spiral has tended, not only in Britain, to culminate in what we call a ‘law and order’ campaign, of the kind which…powered Nixon and Agnew into the White House in 1968.
How the media framing of what is “real” crime is manipulated across issue areas
Let me give you a few examples from this week’s news, all from the New York Times in the interest of consistency:
The NYT did a brilliant investigation into the dangers of the transportation of toxic chemicals by train across the U.S. because of train derailments. This is a small part of a much broader set of environmental crimes caused by corporate criminal recklessness, 100,000s of intentional water pollution violations, and an even greater number of toxic air pollution incidents which are, collectively, daily features of life in the U.S. in ways that cause millions to get cancer and hundreds of thousands to die. (Vox did an important story last year about how 10 trillion pieces of plastic are polluted into global waterways each year—a catastrophe that might be as damaging as climate change to global ecosystems.)
The NYT did a wonderful investigation into thousands of violations of child labor laws, and the investigation showed that federal “law enforcement” chose to ignore them:
The New York Times published an article about a letter that the Department of Justice sent to warn state and local courts that they were engaging in millions of intentional constitutional violations by charging people excessive fees/fines, and then doing things like jailing people who can’t pay them. The article did not mention that local prosecutors, judges, and debt collectors were engaging in widespread federal felony crimes, including in violation of 18 U.S.C. 242 (intentional violation of constitutional rights), extortion, and racketeering.
There are two key points I want to make about these articles. First, stories like these are often one big investigative piece, for which journalists are rightly celebrated. But these stories are not treated as daily news coverage. In fact, editors at places like the NYT routinely turn down stories like this on the ground that another reporter has covered the same issue within the previous few months. In other words, they are not, like street crimes by poor people, individually presented as anecdotes of “crime” and “disorder” in the daily news. They are special stories given to investigative reporters.
Imagine how differently the public would feel about the issues of child labor violations, toxic pollution crimes, or corruption by judges if, every day and then evening on tv news, anecdotes of children being abused and coerced into unsafe and illegal labor conditions were presented in the news, or if every day the public was shown a child who got cancer resulting from a toxic chemical train derailment resulting from safety code violations or a judge jailing a young mother and separating her from her family because she couldn’t pay a $100 ticket.
Second, none of these stories were presented as a "crime wave" like shoplifting or even labeled “crimes.” They are not seen as “real” crimes. These injustices are almost always discussed as bad things or sometimes civil violations, but their criminal component is rarely mentioned (unless someone like me talks to the reporter, in which case we are sometimes able to bring out some of these hypocrisies.) This is a reflection of the theme of this post: at a basic level, many people in politics and journalism just don’t instinctively see the criminal law as a place where we deal with the harms caused by the powerful.6
p.s. Today’s cover photo is a one-eyed cat named Wally shortly after he got a haircut that makes him look like a lion. Also, forward this free newsletter to a few friends or colleagues who might be interested. Fewer people are seeing it now that changes at twitter have reduced the number of people who see this newsletter there.
Unfortunately, the policies of the new “tough on crime” DA and pro-police mayor are causing an explosion of preventable overdose deaths, which are now up over 41% this year because of baffling but news-media driven decisions to arrest more people for drug possession, prosecute people more harshly for nonviolent drug offenses, and shut down a community health center that had stopped 330 overdoses last year.
One of the most unaccountable purveyor’s of misinformation about “crime” in San Francisco in the last several years has been the New York Times San Francisco Bureau Chief Thomas Fuller. He made false or recklessly misleading claims many times in nationally published articles, including here, here, here, and here. In each of these instances, Fuller was fanning the flames of a supposed “crime wave” by poor people in San Francisco, and in one case, relying on personal anecdotes and feelings, he even suggested as fact in the paper of record scientifically debunked prison guard union talking point: He told readers that a (fabricated) rise in low level retail theft may be linked to California’s prior legislation to reduce lengthy prison sentences for low-level nonviolent crimes—a claim that is, at this point in the state of the research, like climate science denial.
It is telling that the kind of measured, sober, objective and data-based analysis in this week’s article was missing in the New York Times at the critical moments leading up to the right-wing DA recall election last year. Back then, when it mattered a great deal to a specific reactionary political project, the paper's SF Bureau Chief developed a case of cop-union brain worms. Now that this political job is done and the city has a right-wing DA, this same Bureau Chief is able to join a team of reporters publishing paragraphs like the following:
I have written a detailed article about this with lots of examples and citations, and I think it’s fun too!
Few of them even bothered to mention to the public that San Francisco was safer than it ever had been and more safe than most U.S. cities, or that little short-term tweaks in a DA’s policies have little to do with overall violent crime trends.
Forty years into the multi-trillion dollar War on Drugs that prioritized the “real” crime of drug use by the poor for severe physical punishment in the name of “public safety”, here is the result: the U.S. has caged tens of millions of people and separated tens of millions of children from their parents, drugs are more widely available than ever, and overdose deaths are orders of magnitude higher.
Indeed, in many mainstream news stories, companies, business trade organizations, and police are presented as experts on “crime” to be quoted for their learned expertise and not as serial recidivist criminal perpetrators. During the “shoplifting” panic of 2021 and 2022, for example, numerous business executives were quoted for expert opinions on theft or otherwise quoted as victims of shoplifting in articles that entirely failed to mention their long histories of stealing wages worth far more money from low-income workers. This is ideology. It would not be unreasonable in the least for a person who abhorred theft and violent crime to run the same kinds of stories about them being habitual criminals.