San Francisco’s D.A. Says Indignant Elites Need Him Out of Workplace

When Chesa Boudin was elected district attorney for San Francisco in 2019, his victory was seen as part of a wave that swept him and other progressive prosecutors into office, including Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, Kim Foxx in Chicago and Rachael Rollins in Boston. Boudin, like others in his cohort, promised to work to reform the criminal-justice system by focusing on, among other tactics, decarceration and addressing root causes of crime. Perhaps predictably, Boudin — whose parents are former members of the Weather Underground who served long prison sentences for their roles in a 1981 robbery of a Brink’s armored car that left two police officers and a guard dead — has been met with heavy resistance from those who believe that his office has compromised public safety. While a host of metrics complicate that perception, it remains potent: Boudin, who is 41, is facing a recall election on June 7. “We’re doing things that have never been done before,” he says, “and that does make some people uncomfortable.”

Your critics make the argument that your policies, and by extension progressive prosecutors, create a perception of permissiveness that emboldens criminals. What’s your response? I was clear as a candidate, and our efforts have followed through, that we would focus resources on crimes that cause the most harm: violent crimes, murder, sexual assault. Those are where our charging and conviction rates have gone up. If you are someone who believes in a tough-on-crime deterrence model of the justice system or public safety, then that model must begin with the police making arrests in a high percentage of cases. With theft in San Francisco, people believe they can get away with it because only 2 percent of reported thefts result in arrest. We can hang people in the town square, but the most effective thing at deterring crime is certainty of arrest. But the police make arrests in less than 3 percent of reported auto burglaries. Not blaming the police: These are crimes that are hard to make an arrest in. Because of that, people don’t fear consequences. It has nothing to do with my policies.

There has been a lot of friction between your office and the police. Do you believe they’re trying to undermine you? Some police officers, absolutely. The police union has been out to get me since before Day 1. I also know there’s a lot of San Francisco police officers who hate the politics and want to do their job and do it well, and they’re doing a difficult job under historically challenging circumstances. I have tremendous sympathy and admiration for the members of the San Francisco Police Department who do their job with integrity. It is a dereliction of duty by those other members who, instead of doing their job well, tell the victims that they can’t do anything because they don’t like the district attorney.

Your mayor has also been critical. Do you think she finds it politically expedient to not be more supportive of you with the recall election? There’s a structural flaw in the way that San Francisco’s recalls are designed, which is that the mayor appoints the replacement after a successful recall vote. It creates an incentive for the mayor to always support a recall, because who wouldn’t want to appoint a citywide elected official? Why would she ever oppose a recall?

Maybe I’m a Pollyanna, but Why would she ever oppose a recall?” — because she thought the person was doing the best job. You haven’t spent much time in San Francisco politics, David. In San Francisco, the county and the city are contiguous. She has the budget of a city and a county combined. The resources are immense, and with those resources come high expectations. When we have problems like the Tenderloin or a housing crisis or an opioid-overdose epidemic, it is convenient for someone with access to those resources and power to have a foil when people are upset. When you have that much power, if people are upset, it’s convenient to have a place to shift the blame.

Chesa Boudin at his swearing-in ceremony in January 2020.
Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

I know that you talk a lot about wanting to address root causes of crime. But to what extent can a district attorney even do that? Isn’t your ability to address root causes largely dependent on other actors — like the police, like the mayor — that are part of the system? This is a big question. I want to describe examples of what we’re doing to address root causes. So, we know that gun violence is on the rise across the country, with significant numbers in San Francisco. A traditional prosecutor might say that if someone is in possession of a gun illegally or uses a gun to do something unlawful, we’re going to punish them as harshly as the law allows, and that’s our way of deterring crime. The thing that frustrates me about that approach is that we are accepting that we don’t have a role to play in promoting public safety until after a crime occurs. We’re trying to be proactive in my office. In San Francisco, instead of waiting for the police to make an arrest in homicides involving a ghost gun and punishing the individual that committed the harm, we are suing the ghost-gun companies and asking the courts to prohibit them from shipping their weapons into our community. Another example is expanding partnerships with the state attorney general to get guns out of the hands of people who we know are prohibited from having them. These are proactive approaches to prevent gun violence. A crime prevented: There’s no viral video of that. But if we are serious about good policy, we must be proactive about preventing crime.

What about something like, for example, property theft? Unlike gun violence, it seems to be a bigger problem in San Francisco than it is in some other cities. Is there necessarily going to be a lag between the time it takes to address root causes and a subsequent reduction in that kind of crime? It’s not a new problem. That’s one thing to bear in mind. A second part of that is if you look at the data, overall thefts last year went up a bit but were still well below their 2019 levels. So despite the viral videos and breathless headlines to the contrary, the empirical evidence is that property crime is moving in the right direction. The other thing is, I want to complicate the assumption that it’s not an issue in other cities. I went to New York in November to visit my dad when he got out of prison, and we went to Duane Reade. We wanted to get him basic things: deodorant, a hairbrush, a toothbrush. We went in, and even deodorant, which was like five or six dollars a bar, was behind plexiglass. People on social media would have you think that it’s only in San Francisco where people are so desperate that they’re going to go into Duane Reade or Walgreens and shoplift. The reality is that’s a feature of modern American urban life, in large part because of the horrific wealth inequalities, the poverty, the lack of access to housing, the internet marketplaces where people can resell stolen products. Those trends are national and have nothing to do with me or my policies. That said, this country has spent decades building up a system that efficiently processes individual cases for conviction and incarceration. We can’t, overnight, expect to have a comparable infrastructure for responding to crimes in ways that are more than just warehousing people. Which is why it’s important to recognize that we are focusing wherever possible on root causes. At the same time, we have increased our conviction rate for murders, our charging rate for sexual assaults. My charging rate for drug sales is higher than in years.

I brought up property theft in San Francisco and you made a comparison with Manhattan. But Target is limiting its hours in your city, and Walgreens is closing stores explicitly because of too much theft. There’s also those viral videos of flash-mob robberies — Sorry, David, you’re saying you didn’t see videos of flash-mob burglaries in other cities?

I haven’t, no. Chicago. Walnut Creek. The notion that this is a San Francisco problem is demonstrably false.

Then that’s my mistake. But property theft in San Francisco is a problem. What needs to be happening differently to address it? The major change that has happened when it comes to retail theft in particular is that stores like Walgreens have decided it’s not in their interest to have their security detain shoplifters. The reason is that the police almost never make it to the stores in response to a shoplifting call in time to effectuate an arrest. They rely on store security to hold people long enough for the police to arrive. If Walgreens or Target or any other store decides that it’s too risky, in terms of people getting injured or racial-profiling lawsuits or disturbing other customers — if those costs outweigh the benefit of having their staff make arrests, how do they expect me to prosecute? If the police can’t make arrests, to then say it’s the district attorney’s fault simply doesn’t add up.

Let me ask about another subject that I suspect you might say has been distorted nationally: the Tenderloin, which the mayor declared an emergency zone. But whether anything actually new is happening there is almost beside the point. The point is that an open-air drug market is a bad thing for a city. What can you be doing to improve the situation? The Tenderloin has been an ongoing public-health crisis and state of emergency for at least a decade. This is not a new problem. In fact, one of your colleagues at The New York Times wrote an Op-Ed in which he was highly critical of me. He linked to a video of the Tenderloin and the Civic Center BART station that adjoins it as an example of progressive prosecutors failing. But the video was from 2018. I hadn’t even run for office yet. I’m not saying that to be catty about your colleagues or the fact-checking at The New York Times. I’m making a broader point, which is that the right-wing media — I’m not saying this about The New York Times — has for years loved to point to the Tenderloin as an example of the failures of progressive policies. The reality is that every city in the United States has at least one neighborhood where, historically, through red-lining or policing or zoning, poverty has been consolidated. If you go to New York City, you can’t pretend that the South Bronx doesn’t exist, that deep east Brooklyn doesn’t exist. Those are parts of New York City, just like the Tenderloin is part of San Francisco.

I wouldn’t argue that other parts of the country don’t have historically problematic areas. My question was whether anything should or could be done differently in the Tenderloin. Absolutely. The Tenderloin is an emergency. It is a priority. In San Francisco, we need to have safe consumption sites, because people don’t die of overdoses at safe consumption sites. The second thing we need is people who are drug-addicted to have an easier time accessing treatment and services than they do buying drugs on the street corner. We are prosecuting people the police arrest. It’s not working because there is an insatiable demand for drugs from people who don’t have housing, access to health care, access to employment and access to treatment that can help them reduce their dependence on dangerous drugs.

Boudin at a news conference in December.
Gabrielle Lurie/San Francisco Chronicle, via Associated Press

There’s statistical evidence that your approach is working, but that seems to be coming up against a segment of the San Francisco population’s lived experience, insofar as there may be people thinking: The numbers are pointing in the right direction, but then why are there citizen-safety patrols in Chinatown? Why does my car keep getting broken into? The data speaks for itself, but you’re right: The way that people feel matters too. If you walk down a busy street and there are a couple of people who are living in tents or asking for money, you don’t feel unsafe, because there are lots of other people who look like you. After the pandemic, for reasons that have nothing to do with my policies, the financial district is empty. So the number of homeless people hasn’t increased significantly, but that population — people who are mentally ill, addicted, vulnerable to being victims of crime — is more visible in ways that make people who have access to social media, who donate to political campaigns, who have access to reporters at The San Francisco Chronicle or Examiner feel less safe. It’s not wrong or unfair for people to feel that way, but the connection with me is an explicitly political one driven by the recall.

You can point to factors beyond your policies affecting the situation in San Francisco; you can also point to things that you’re doing well. If those things are true, what’s motivating the recall? Where’s the disconnect for San Franciscans? Here’s what’s important to know: To get elected, the most any donor could give me was $500. Recalls are allowed to accept unlimited donations. That’s significant, because the single biggest contributor to the recall is a committee that has given about a $1.5 million so far. We’re not dealing with a grass-roots movement. We’re dealing with a small number of wealthy individuals, many of whom are national Republican major donors, who have financial interests in the real estate industry, in the gig economy and in using the police and the criminal-justice system to force aggressive displacement and gentrification so that their real estate investments can go up. And this is critical: I created a worker-protection unit that filed lawsuits against some gig-economy companies that are systematically misclassifying their employees, calling them independent contractors in blatant violation of California law, in order to avoid paying minimum wage, workers’ compensation insurance, unemployment insurance and all the other things that they’re required to do to compete fairly. Many of the people donating to the recall are investors in those companies.

Isn’t part of what’s also motivating the recall a philosophical disagreement about the nature of law enforcement? The rhetoric being used by the recall committee is that they support criminal-justice reform too. They know that if they’re honest about their political perspective, they will not win. I’ll give you one example: I had a meeting in 2019 with one of the major donors to the recall. His name was William Oberndorf. At that meeting — I was running for district attorney — he said he would support me if I would oppose San Francisco’s sanctuary-city policy. I said I couldn’t do that. He got very angry, and when someone has the kind of money that he has, he can express his anger in a recall context, and that’s exactly what he’s doing. [When reached for comment, Oberndorf strongly disputed Boudin’s recounting of their meeting and said that he never suggested any sort of quid pro quo regarding sanctuary-city policy and his support of Boudin.]

You said the recall was not a grass-roots movement, but the petition for it got 83,000 signatures — you’re shaking your head. It’s more complicated. It’s a self-reported number of signatures. That number has never been audited or validated. It doesn’t change the fact that, hey, a lot of people seem to have signed. What any political consultant in California politics will tell you is that you can qualify anything you want for the ballot if you spend enough money to hire professional signature gatherers. They incentivize them by paying them per signature they gather. And they send them across the city, and the gatherers say things like: “Do you want to stop sexual assault? Sign here.” If you are allowed to employ those tactics and have unlimited money, then, yes, you will get lots of signatures. That’s a reflection of the money you spend, not necessarily popular support.

I want to ask you about recidivism. There have been cases used as a cudgel against you in which repeat offenders committed tragic crimes when they were back out on the street. Obviously we can always say the counterfactual: If the repeat offender was in jail, that wouldn’t have happened. But locking up every offender for life is not a realistic response to the problem of recidivism. My question, though, is whether progressive prosecutors are asking people to accept some increased collective risk of recidivism in the short term in exchange for a greater collective good in the long term? We have to recognize that the tough-on-crime approach has had lots of opportunities to reduce recidivism rates, and it hasn’t worked. California went through a drastic expansion of incarceration during the 1990s and early 2000s. About two-thirds of the people being released from state prison after local prosecutors had thrown the book at them were rearrested within a couple of years. The other important thing to recognize is that when people talk about recidivism in San Francisco — if you look at the cohort of people we’ve resentenced because we believe they’ve served more than enough time, the recidivism rate is infinitesimally small. But people are going to focus on the Willie Horton case, the one case where something does go wrong, and they’re going to blame my office.

I imagine, given your personal history, that throughout your life you’ve encountered people with strong preconceptions about who you are and what you believe. Is that at all factoring into the opposition you’re facing? If you never spend time with me — and sadly, because of the pandemic, there are far fewer residents and civic leaders in San Francisco who have had an opportunity to do that — it’s easy to be fooled by the dishonesty of the police union and their allies in terms of who I am and what I’m about. The people who work closest with me, the people who know me, the people who have seen the way I approach the problems we face in this office understand that I’m deeply committed to justice and public safety and that I believe that criminal-justice reform can make us safer. That’s why I’m implementing these policies. For no other reason.

This interview has been edited and condensed from two conversations.

Opening illustration: Source photograph by Eric Risberg/Associated Press

David Marchese is a staff writer for the magazine and the columnist for Talk. Recently he interviewed Brian Cox about the filthy rich, Dr. Becky about the ultimate goal of parenting and Tiffany Haddish about God’s sense of humor.

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