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San Francisco police used force on homeless people more than 1,300 times in 5 years

Joseph Southwick poses for a portrait near the Chillicothe Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Ohio on Aug. 15, 2023. | Source: Hannah Grace Fowler for The Standard

Joseph Southwick was cold, hungry and had nowhere to go the night police put him in the hospital.

A former Army captain and Iraq war veteran from Ohio, Southwick was between places to live in San Francisco. He wandered the streets until he found a restaurant along the waterfront, broke a window and went inside. He remembers stealing six chocolate chip cookies.

It wasn’t long before officers responding to a silent alarm chased him from the restaurant to a grassy patch of the Embarcadero, according to body-worn camera footage and police reports from the April 2022 incident. A flashlight illuminated him as he sat on the ground in a panic and raised his hands in the air, one of them bloodied by the broken window.

Southwick refused officers’ orders to get on his stomach and instead stood up and backed away, the footage shows. He screamed as officers shot him with a foam round, punched him and wrestled him into handcuffs while telling him to stop resisting.

Over a recent five-year period, nearly a third of all people whom San Francisco police used force against had something in common with Southwick: They, too, were experiencing homelessness. That finding comes from a first-of-its-kind analysis of police use-of-force data by The Standard, which obtained the figures through a public records request.

The analysis adds a new layer to the debate playing out in cities across the nation around the role that police should play in responding to homelessness issues. In San Francisco, where thousands of people suffer openly on sidewalks, that conversation centers on who should respond to calls for service involving homeless people and how to enforce the drug crimes and quality-of-life offenses that often come with living on the streets. 

Police officers are seen from above walking past tents.
San Francisco police officers walk by a tent encampment. | Source: Nick Otto for The Standard

The analysis found that homeless people were the subjects of 29% of all 4,749 use-of-force incidents documented by the San Francisco Police Department between Dec. 21, 2016, and April 11, 2022. That percentage is far larger than the roughly 2.5% of San Francisco’s population that is estimated to be homeless.

The trend has continued into 2023. About 27% of the 380 people the SFPD used force against in the first six months of this year were homeless, according to a separate review by SFPD of its own data.

Use-of-force incidents can include officers spraying a person with a chemical agent, striking them with a fist, placing them in a physical control hold, pointing a firearm at them and, in rare cases, shooting them with a gun. Police injured homeless people in about a third of the use-of-force incidents involving them, the data shows.

Police used force in only a small fraction of the 3.8 million calls for service that officers responded to during the period analyzed, when there was about one use-of-force incident for every 1,000 calls for service, according to SFPD data.

The analysis reveals that San Francisco police disproportionately used force against homeless people based on their relatively small share of the city’s population. But, because SFPD does not track how often its officers encounter homeless people unless the interaction results in an officer using force, it’s unclear whether police contacts with homeless people were more likely to result in force than contacts with non-homeless people. 

However, 34% of the nearly 77,000 bookings into San Francisco jails from January 2017 to April 2022 were homeless people, according to Sheriff’s Department data. That means homeless people constituted a slightly larger share of people booked than use-of-force subjects during that period, and are heavily overrepresented in the jail population.

Southwick’s encounter with police in April 2022 is among the incidents captured in the analysis. The injuries from that night left him with memories that he says still make his body cramp. He said he feared for his life when police used force against him.

“I was clearly unarmed, and they had no right to shoot me and assault me and beat me like that,” Southwick said. “Even if I did break a window and take a few cookies.”

Southwick was arrested and charged with burglary, battery on a peace officer and other misdemeanors. An SFPD spokesperson said he resisted arrest and that the officers were found to have acted within policy.

San Francisco police body-worn camera footage shows officers using force against Joseph Southwick. | San Francisco Police Department body-camera footage

Police Chief Bill Scott said his officers don’t use force against homeless people simply because of their housing status. Officers rarely know whether a person is homeless, he said.

“It doesn’t matter what a person’s housing status is,” Scott said in an interview with The Standard. “If they’re involved in a violent incident, and then, when the officers have to engage with that person, there is more violence, oftentimes those are the types of things that lead to force having to be used.”

Brian Cox, an attorney focused on police oversight for the Public Defender’s Office, said he believes the data shows why officers are often the “wrong tool” for interactions involving people who are experiencing homelessness.

“Police inherently use violence to gain compliance,” Cox said. “When you are talking about some of the most vulnerable members of the community, some of whom are experiencing mental health issues, that’s a recipe for violence.

“I refuse to think that the choice is between doing nothing or having police show up, and the only tool they know how to use is violence,” Cox added.

How SFPD Uses Force Against Homeless People

The Standard found that pointing a firearm or using a physical control hold made up more than half of all use-of-force reports by police involving homeless people.

Tracy McCray, president of the San Francisco Police Officers Association, referred to the pointing of a firearm as a “so-called” use of force because officers did not use physical force.

The department first required officers to begin reporting the pointing of a firearm as a use of force in the wake of the controversial police shooting of Mario Woods in December 2015.

McCray said having officers report pointing a firearm as a use of force “significantly ups the number of reportable force incidents.”

Pointing a firearm represented 43% of use-of-force instances involving homeless people and 55% of such cases involving non-homeless people, the data shows.

“It is easy for someone to take this data out of context to grind a political ax,” she said. “Doing so purposefully misleads the public.”

Homeless people made up a substantial share of those police sprayed with chemical agents (38%) and shot with extended range impact weapons, such as the one that fired the foam projectile at Southwick (37%).

In 36% of all the use-of-force cases against homeless people (476 incidents), police injured the person they used force against. The data does not specify the severity of the injuries. Non-homeless people were injured by police force in 29% of incidents.

About two-thirds of the homeless people police used force against were booked into jail, while another 20% were cited and about 14% were just detained and then released. A similar share of non-homeless people were booked into jail after police used force on them, though fewer were cited (15%) and a larger share were released after they were detained (18%).

The top two call types that preceded police using force against homeless people were burglary and stolen vehicle dispatches. Reports of suspicious persons and trespassing were the third- and fourth-most common call types. 

Eric Tars, senior policy director with the National Homeless Law Center, said suspicious persons and trespassing calls often target homeless people and are open to bias.

“Who’s going to appear suspicious?” Tars said. “Not a person in a nicely tailored suit walking down the street.”

A 2022 city report concluded that the vast majority of 911 calls dispatched as trespassing or suspicious persons were related to the presence of homeless people.

Scott rejected the notion that illegitimate crime reports targeting homeless people drive police to use force. If there is a crime in progress, including trespassing or another type of crime, it’s the interaction between the officer and the person they’re investigating that determines whether or not force is used, he said.

“We do get suspicious person calls, that is true,” Scott said. “But most of what we’re talking about here are actual calls involving crimes.” 

Police Chief Bill Scott | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

Policing the Homeless

San Francisco was one of the first cities in the nation to charge its police with forcibly clearing homeless people from public spaces under Mayor Frank Jordan’s Matrix program in the 1990s.

More recently, city leaders have placed less emphasis on law enforcement, opting instead to spend hundreds of millions on expanding supportive housing options and shelter beds.

At the same time, Mayor London Breed has made clear that she believes the city should be able to compel people to vacate local streets. She has railed against a court injunction restricting the city from enforcing laws prohibiting people from sitting, lying or lodging in public spaces while there aren’t enough shelter beds available

Breed said on Tuesday that the city was prepared to fight the injunction all the way to the Supreme Court, and the case sparked dueling protests Wednesday outside a local courthouse.

Paul Boden, who leads the Western Regional Advocacy Project, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that advocates for the rights of people experiencing homelessness, said residents have traditionally wanted homeless people out of “their space.”

“And that’s where it falls to the cops,” Boden said.

“It’s not about criminal activity as much as it is about ‘I don’t want to see you,’” he added. “There’s inevitable opportunity for conflict.” 

Jennifer Friedenbach, who heads the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness, said it’s not possible to characterize police treatment of homeless individuals in broad strokes.

“There’s members of law enforcement that they have really good relationships with and members of law enforcement they have really bad relationships with,” Friedenbach said. “I think that what the difference is is that there’s just a lot more likelihood to have some kind of frequent interaction with law enforcement just because of their very presence and because of their housing status.”

Scott, the police chief, said people must be held accountable for committing crimes, regardless of their housing status. If a person breaks into a house to seek shelter from the weather, that’s still a crime that police need to respond to and potentially use force to address if the person acts violently toward officers, he said.

“We can’t make that an automatic excuse for people just breaking the law, infringing on other people’s ability to live peacefully and freely and then not addressing that issue,” Scott said.

Police Commission Vice President Max Carter-Oberstone and Commissioner Kevin Benedicto each said the findings bolster their belief that San Francisco needs to fund the Compassionate Alternative Response Team, a program that would provide an alternative to police responding to homelessness-related calls.

“I have been on ride-alongs, station visits and had many interactions with officers and the strong consensus from officers is that they do not want to be the primary response to homelessness,” Benedicto said. “We need alternative and comprehensive solutions to this problem to address the issues of disparate use of force.”

The city recently launched a different alternative program, called the Homeless Engagement Assistance Response Team, or HEART, to have staffers from the nonprofit Urban Alchemy respond to certain calls for service instead of the police.

Why Officers Say They Use Force

San Francisco police have a strict use-of-force policy that emphasizes preserving life and encourages the use of both de-escalation tactics and the minimum amount of force necessary.

Going into a potential arrest, officers don’t always know whether the encounter will require them to use force.

Such was the case in February 2019, when two patrol officers, Bryan Santana and Nicholas Nagai, decided to confront a person in the Castro District who was homeless and wanted for a parole violation.

With a tap on the shoulder from Santana, the person burst into an all-out sprint into the street toward a passing Muni streetcar, according to surveillance video of the encounter.

Santana and Nagai quickly grabbed and wrestled with the person, with Nagai punching him in the head twice.

SFPD used force to arrest a homeless person who fled officers on Market Street on February 14, 2019. | Public record via Department of Police Accountability

“We weren’t anticipating any type of use of force to begin with,” Nagai said in a recorded interview with police oversight investigators. “But when he’s trying to flee from being captured or to be in custody, then we have to use some sort of physical force at that point to get him into handcuffs and get him into custody just because there is very little time to, in my mind, no time to de-escalate the situation.”

A citizen filed a complaint with the Department of Police Accountability, accusing the officers of excessive force. However, an investigation by the agency found the force “was justified, lawful, and proper.”

Santana and Nagai did not reply to emails seeking comment by publication time. An SFPD spokesperson said the person’s housing status was not relevant to why the officers used force.

How San Francisco Stacks Up Against Other Cities

Very few police departments publish information about how often they use force against homeless people, making it challenging to gauge how law enforcement in San Francisco compares to others.

The policies dictating what actions officers have to report as a use of force also vary from agency to agency.

Los Angeles and San Jose, however, both track use of force by housing status. 

In four of the five years analyzed, homeless people made up a larger share of police use of force subjects in Los Angeles than in San Francisco. 

The opposite appears to be true in San Jose, where about 16% of all use-of-force subjects were logged as “transient” in the past eight years. The “transient” label is less clearly defined than the “homeless” designation used by San Francisco and Los Angeles police, though San Jose police told The Standard “transient” primarily refers to unhoused people.

A larger share of the population in San Francisco is homeless compared with Los Angeles or Santa Clara County, home to San Jose, according to the federal 2022 homeless point-in-time count.

A Mental Health Setback

Southwick suffered a bloody nose, redness and swelling to his face the night he encountered police along the Embarcadero, according to police reports from the incident. Officers wrote that they struck him in the face with their fists and knees because he was resisting arrest. They also said that during the scuffle, he grabbed the less-lethal weapon that one of the officers shot him with.

Southwick was taken to a hospital and treated for his injuries. A photograph of Southwick, provided by the Public Defender’s Office, shows him in the hospital with a swollen black eye.

Joseph Southwick shows his black eye while at the hospital eight days after his altercation with SFPD. | Source: Courtesy San Francisco Public Defender’s Office

Southwick ultimately resolved his burglary case by pleading no contest to a misdemeanor trespassing charge in late June 2022.

He was held in custody for a month after his plea until authorities from Ohio picked him up on an outstanding warrant, according to jail records and the Public Defender’s Office.

Evan Sernoffsky, an SFPD spokesperson, said Southwick’s housing status was “not relevant” to why officers used force against him.

“Burglaries remain a felony in the State of California and the San Francisco Police Department will continue to arrest burglary suspects when we encounter them in the act,” Sernoffsky said.

Southwick recently spoke with The Standard from a medical center for veterans in Ohio, where he said he was enrolled in a recovery program.

“I have PTSD from the Iraq war and that attack on me put me back,” he said. “It caused me a lot of trauma.”

Joseph Southwick poses for a portrait near the Chillicothe Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Chillicothe, Ohio, on Aug. 15, 2023. | Source: Hannah Grace Fowler for The Standard

Despite his negative experience with police, he hopes to return to San Francisco after completing his program in the coming weeks.

“I love California,” he said. “And I’m doing better now as far as processing the whole attack. But I’ve had to pray a lot about it, and I’ve had to go to a lot of church about it.”