A proposal to explore a stop-and-frisk policy in San Francisco – similar to controversial proposals in place in New York and Philadelphia – drew anger from community leaders and politicians who said it would lead to racial profiling.
The outcry came after San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee said he was considering a stop-and-frisk policy to try and clamp down on a rise in crime in the city. Opponents of the idea said they were shocked that the mayor would explore such a strategy in the international tourist mecca known for its uber-liberal outlook.
Stop-and-frisk policies allow police to stop, question and pat down anyone who appears suspicious. Critics say it can lead to racial profiling and a violation of civil rights requiring probable cause for such searches.
Lee recently told a newspaper editorial board that San Francisco police officers need stop-and-frisk authority to get guns off the streets, and he was willing to consider what other cities were doing after his city was wracked by 10 homicides in June — its deadliest month in nearly four years.
The backlash grew last week when Supervisor Malia Cohen introduced a resolution supported by five of her colleagues opposing the idea. She wants anti-crime strategies that she says do not encourage racial profiling and violate the Fourth Amendment.
"It is a policy that is unnecessary, unwanted and let's not forget, unconstitutional," Cohen said at a Tuesday rally with dozens of other opponents on the steps of City Hall.
They delivered a petition with more than 2,200 signatures to the mayor's office expressing their disgust with the strategy.
"It's not an African-American issue, it's not a Latino issue," said Theo Ellington, 23, the rally organizer and president of the Black Young Democrats of San Francisco. "It's a quality-of-life issue."
Cohen, an ardent Lee supporter whose district includes a large population of black and Asian residents, said she understands the mayor's concerns but believes she has enough board votes to formally reject any proposal.
"I believe he was raising awareness," Cohen said. "But to actually say something sensational like that, people are stopping and listening now. It is a loaded term."
She said the discussion should be about overall public safety in San Francisco.
Lee, the city's first Asian-American mayor, clarified his comments Tuesday, saying he is not considering a policy that would violate anyone's constitutional rights and result in racial profiling. He said he has met with community leaders, clergy and police on how to reduce violence.
The spike came after the city's violent crime rate dropped in 2011 for a third straight year, hovering at lows not seen since the 1960s and mirroring a national trend.
"We share grave concerns about gun violence and its disproportionate impact on communities of color and youth in San Francisco," Lee said. "We need to do more."
The New York-based nonprofit Communities United for Police Reform recently urged Lee "to exhibit serious caution in replicating a system that is broken and that will undoubtedly negatively impact the people of San Francisco."
In addition, the Coalition for a Safe San Francisco sent Lee a letter signed by 50 organizations saying "stop-and-frisk would be a grave and major step backwards for San Francisco."
In New York City last year, police reported stopping nearly 700,000 people, with 88 percent of those encounters resulting in no arrests or citations. The majority of those stopped were black and Latino, and more than half were between the ages of 12 and 24.
Critics say the tactic in New York is illegal and humiliating.
San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr, who was apparently caught off-guard by Lee's initial comments, has said while he and the mayor may differ on some tactics to reduce violence, everything is on the table for discussion.
"He doesn't want to rule out anything. He's willing and of the desire to do anything to reduce gun violence," Suhr said. "I told him that we make all of our detentions in San Francisco based on reasonable suspicion."
Lee said Tuesday that as a former human rights director and a civil rights attorney, he views the Fourth Amendment as sacrosanct and will keep having discussions and looking at different anti-crime strategies.
"I will not support, nor will I put forward any proposal that will violate such protections, but I am willing to move forward with bold ideas that get to results," Lee said.