When I started in this business in the early 1980s, the San Francisco Police Department had one press officer, Sergeant Mike Pera. He took all the media calls, although he might have had an assistant. Back then, the department also gave out police reports; you could get a copy by going to the precent where the incident happened.
The captain of a district station would talk to the press; at night, when the captain was gone, the duty sergeant would take press calls.
Now, SFPD has a staff of eight people, and a budget for nine, handling “strategic communications.” The price: $1.6 million a year.
And based on a hearing today at the Government Audits and Oversight Committee, the focus has shifted pretty dramatically, as Sup. Connie Chan put it, from public information to public relations.
Sup. Dean Preston called the hearing, and it raised an important question: Should the taxpayers be funding an operation that seeks to put out one point of view and shape the media narrative on important public-policy issues?
We all know that elected officials use their staff to push their policies and images. (For the record, in 1984, Mayor Dianne Feinstein had two press people; Mayor London Breed today has eight. And I got more useful information from Feinstein’s office—limited and twisted as it was—than I do from Breed’s.)
But an agency like SFPD shouldn’t be using its media operation to spin a narrative—and that, critics say, is exactly what it’s doing.
My concern led me to call for this hearing was what often appears to be an orchestrated and constant narrative on crime, policing, public safety that encourages increased police funding, increased policing, increases in budget at every opportunity. … I hope that it is not controversial and our starting point is that we all agree that city-funded press units should be used to share factual information, not to sensationalize spending or
spreading what some might see as propaganda.
Assistant Chief Bob Moser told the committee that
We at the media relations unit attempt to in a good faith effort to meet all the demands that are coming from them from media inquiries in a timely manner and being cognizant and understanding of the deadlines that media is quite often under in getting their stories out.
Yep: There are now on-duty staff who take calls 24/7, and they are generally polite to the news media and answer very basic questions. They don’t provide relevant information, like police reports; by law, police departments don’t have to give that information out, but they can if they want to. SFPD chooses to keep everything it can as secret as possible. It can take months for this staff of eight to respond to a public-records request.
(I have covered cops since I was an intern at the Hartford Courant in 1979. I can tell you: Nothing bad happens when the cops put out public information—except that sometimes it looks bad for the cops.)
But that’s not what the hearing was about.
John Crew, who has spent his career as a police-practices lawyer at the ACLU, put it this way in a letter to the committee:
Law enforcement agencies that consistently require candor in their communications and media operations are agencies that recognize that the long-term need to develop and maintain the trust of the public, press and other parts of government is always more important than any short-term embarrassment that might result from the timely release of factual information perceived to be negative.
That’s the degree of transparency that’s required of law enforcement agencies to be effective in serving and being accountable to the public. And, unfortunately, it’s this candor-based transparency that SFPD has, in recent times, far too frequently actively avoided in its communications efforts.
Official police communications consistently designed to prioritize an internally-preferred narrative about an event, controversy or issue over candor and full transparency with the press and public will be fairly and accurately understood to be propaganda. If the goal of being less than candid.. of being misleading or inaccurate.. of selectively releasing or withholding information.. is to influence coverage so that it might shape and skew public opinion in certain ways.. by definition, that’s propaganda. And if certain misleading or inaccurate messages are repeated over and over, that’s a well-recognized and often effective propaganda technique.
One of the points that Crew mentioned is a statement that is part of almost every press release SFPD puts out:
SFPD Claim — The SFPD has been “hailed by the New York Times as a police department as a major city department `where police reform has worked.'”
This is false.
The New York Times did no such thing. Yet, this falsehood continues to be: included as part of the “about the SFPD” blurb at the bottom of every Department press release; is featured prominently on the SFPD’s website’s “police reform” section touted on the homepage; Is promoted on SFPD-produced videos the department has used to encourage members of the public to lobby the Board of Supervisors (at. 1:11 mark) in support of their budget requests; and, routinely used to create a false impression (on homepage and at 3:53 mark of video) about the scope and impact of the reform process while positioning the SFPD as allegedly a nationally-recognized “role model on reform” generally rather than only on certain selected policies.
Yet, no New York Times editorial, column or reported story makes that claim about SFPD. It stems entirely from a headline placed on New York Times morning news summary for June 5, 2020—11 days after the murder of George Floyd and with massive protests continuing across the country. That morning summary newsletter contained only an abbreviated, overview description of the state of police reform at that point.
The actual subheadline for that Friday morning New York Times newsletter was “And what else you need to know today” but the screenshot or photograph routinely used by SFPD in videos and in various public presentations includes only the main headline
That morning news summary relied entirely on linked stories from other publications to make the limited point that certain policy reforms belatedly enacted in a number of major cities — usually after avoidable police killings and significant protests and public pressure not just in San Francisco — had begun to help reduce the number of police shootings in those jurisdictions.
Relying on and quoting an ABC News Five Thirty Eight story by nationally-recognized police reform data scientist and activist Sam Sinyangwe, founder of the Mapping Police Violence and Police Scorecard projects (and a key architect of Campaign Zero and the 8 Can’t Wait / #8CantWait campaign), the summary mentions San Francisco along with Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Phoenix as examples of cities where these particular policy changes had been made. None were described as agencies “where police reform has worked.” None were singled out as national models for police reform overall— not San Francisco and certainly not other deeply and historically-flawed police departments in Philadelphia, Chicago and Baltimore. In other words, if that New York Timesmorning news summary can be accurately cited for anything it’s only for the very limited proposition that San Francisco was one of several major American cities whose police departments, under great public pressure, finally enacted certain “best practices” deadly force policy reforms that predictably helped drive down shootings.
In fact, when Mr. Singyangwe has singled out the SFPD, it’s been because the department continues to produce very extreme, outlier levels of racial disparities in arrests, stops, searches, shootings and uses of force — notwithstanding all their various claims of progress on police reform overall. If SFPD was candid in its public communications and wanted to accurately represent the actual content and source behind their New York Times claim, they would include images of the headline for Mr. Sinyangwe’s subsequent February 2021 Five Thirty Eight piece, because, in fact , SFPD remains among “The Police Departments with the Biggest Racial Disparities in Arrests and Killings“. In that piece, Mr. Sinyangwe singled out San Francisco as one of four major cities with “…. some of the largest disparities in policing outcomes between Black and white residents. In these cities, Black residents were policed at high rates while white residents were policed at relatively low rates. Police arrested Black people at several times the rate of white people, even for offenses like drug possession which have been found to be committed at similar rates by Black and white communities. And police in these cities also killed Black people at substantially higher rates than white people, even after accounting for racial differences in arrest rates.”
The SFPD has repeatedly been informed it is misrepresenting both the New York Times morning news summary and, in turn, Mr. Sinyangwe’s actual conclusions about SFPD. They are aware of Mr. Sinyangwe’s work as they regularly tout (at 04:45 mark of video) the fact that the SFPD has already enacted the policy reforms called for in the “8 Can’t Wait” (#8CantWait) campaign Mr. Sinyangwe helped design and lead (even though some SFPD officers too frequently continue to openly violate or ignore those reformed policies without consequence). Making claims that have been shown to be factually false is a form of propaganda. Repeating those falsehoods – over and over to shape public opinion – is a tried and true propaganda technique. If there is a single Biggest Lie in the SFPD’s communications strategy, it’s that their overall reform efforts have been “hailed by the New York Times.”
Preston raised that issue:
The concern around the ongoing language in every press release on San Francisco as a city model where police reform has worked. The same language continues to be used. I hope there is an openness in department to revisit that because the problem is continuing to send these out may serve certain objectives. It sends a message of people having force used against them and the folks who are the direct victims of disparities …
It sends a message that the city is sweeping those concerns under the rug when each press release is a model for reform.
It gets worse. The SFPD communications department has sent out press releases that are, in effect, direct attacks on District Attorney Chesa Boudin, who is facing a recall election. That’s the agenda of the Police Officers Association; it should not be the agenda of SFPD.
SFPD Claim — The allegedly lenient policies of District Attorney Boudin are responsible for sharp reductions in the average time-in-custody of individuals arrested by SFPD.
This is a lie.
In a remarkable memo prepared by the SFPD’s Director of Strategic Communications and sent to seven local and national media outlets on December 30, 2021, the SFPD linked the reduced post-arrest time-in-custody averages for “Tenderloin drug dealing repeat offenders” to the tenure of DA Boudin (at pg. 5 and 6). The memo includes a stark graph showing the average time-in-custody for these arrestees being 18 days prior to Boudin taking office and 5.5 days after he took office. But, the memo and graph fail to mention — at all — that for the bulk of the time period reflected in these averages after DA Boudin took office the jail was operating under the emergency public health necessity created by the covid pandemic leading the entirety of the San Francisco’s criminal justice system — from the courts, to the Sheriff’s Department to the DA’s Office — to agree that as few individuals could remain in custody at the jail as possible and was reasonably safe. To the best of my knowledge, the SFPD never publicly disagreed with the obvious public health necessity requiring the new limits on whether and how long SFPD’s arrestees should and could remain in jail during the worst parts of the pandemic. Doubling-down on this cynical misinformation, the SFPD’s Director of Strategic Communications tweeted out to the public the misleading memo almost three months later allowing supporters of the attempted recall of the DA to excerpt and circulate widely the misleading graphic depiction of “time-in-custody” averages pre- and post-Boudin.
There is no non-political, appropriate, legitimate, institutional purpose in a law enforcement agency so fundamentally misrepresenting the impact of an elected official’s tenure. Not when they’re running for re-election. Not when they’re seeking higher office. Not when they are facing a recall vote Not ever. Maybe political “hits” against opposing candidates are considered acceptable practice by communications consultants during election campaigns. They should never be designed and carried out like this by the communications staff for a police agency.
I think there is this line between public information sharing versus now we are going for more public relations. It is more for the goals of politics and others that is not really the basic and the facts of Sometimes the facts and truth hurt.