'Working as Hard as I Can': SF District Attorney Chesa Boudin on His Challenging First Year

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San Francisco District Attorney candidate Chesa Boudin in downtown San Francisco.
San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin as a candidate in October 2019.  (Sheraz Sadiq/KQED)

San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin filed manslaughter charges Monday against Troy McAlister, a parolee accused of killing two pedestrians on New Year's Eve while driving drunk in a stolen car. The case has sparked intense criticism of Boudin, including a recall effort for his choice not to prosecute McAlister's multiple recent arrests leading up to the deadly incident, instead referring the arrests to state parole officials.

The controversy caps the former public defender's challenging first year in office and spotlights his contentious relationship with law enforcement.

Boudin, the son of former radical leftist activists, won the race for district attorney in 2019 as part of a politically progressive wave of prosecutors in cities across the country committed to restorative justice over mass incarceration.

But Boudin continues to face tremendous challenges — made all the more formidable by the COVID-19 pandemic — including a mountain of some 6,000 open cases and staunch opposition from the city's police union.

On Tuesday, Boudin spoke to Michael Krasny on KQED Forum and took questions from listeners about his progressive agenda for criminal justice in San Francisco and his office's track record over the last year.


The following includes highlights from the interview and has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you start by addressing the New Year's Eve tragedy?

This is a terrible and devastating tragedy. I met yesterday for well over an hour with Mrs. Abe, the mother of one of the two victims, and it was unbelievably difficult. I meet with victims of crime as a regular part of my job, and the meetings are never easy. But I have to tell you, yesterday's meeting was unusually challenging for many reasons.

The reality is, in any homicide, we cannot undo the harm that was caused. And that's the weight that I carry as the district attorney every single day, in every single decision that I make, in every single case. It is devastating. And I know that only the families of these two women truly appreciate the depths of pain and loss and suffering.

But what we're focused on is three things going forward. First of all, supporting the families through the grief. Second of all, holding Mr. McAlister, the man we believe caused this harm, accountable for what he did. And third, bringing together all the different law enforcement agencies who were involved in supervising or policing or holding Mr. McAlister accountable and looking at what we did, what we could have done, what we should have done in ensuring that going forward, we don't have agencies operating in silos, but that we have better communication.

There are many people, specifically Tony Montoya, head of the San Francisco Police Officers Association, who are saying you're responsible. That you didn't prosecute and should have.

Let's be clear about Tony Montoya and the POA. The leadership of the POA have been a really toxic part of San Francisco politics since way before I ever even ran for office. And they've been accusing me of horrific things and lies and spreading dishonesty. Not just about me, but about virtually everybody in public life in San Francisco progressive politics for years. It's nothing new.

And much of the misinformation about this case is being spread intentionally by Tony Montoya and by the POA. Now, they can point fingers and they can try to get me to point fingers back. But as San Francisco Police Chief [Bill] Scott said, every law enforcement agency has to take responsibility for what they did or didn't do.

In my case, of course, there are things in hindsight that we could have done differently. That's true in every single case where someone who's had prior law enforcement contact is involved in a serious crime. We don't have a crystal ball. And the district attorney's office in San Francisco handles thousands and thousands of cases.

When someone is on probation or on parole, we often rely on those agencies. It's a question of efficiency, it's a question of resources, and it's a question of prioritizing violent crimes. When Mr. McAlister was arrested earlier this year, his arrests were nonviolent.

Given those circumstances, it was standard practice in my office way before I was sworn in — this is true across the state — to defer to the primary supervising agency. In this instance, it was parole, and parole has tools and resources and options available to them, far more nuanced and individualized than simply filing a new criminal case.

And we need to be honest about what filing a new criminal case in those first contacts he had this year after his parole would have done. Charging someone with a new nonviolent offense rarely results in ongoing incarceration absent a parole revocation. We trust parole and we continue to trust parole because they know the individuals they supervise and they have the tools and the expertise to do it.

Some have the perception that you are more of an advocate for people who break the law than the general citizenry of San Francisco. How do you counter that?

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I'm really sorry to hear that that's the perception some people have. I know that the POA has contributed to it. They tried to make that the perception even before I was elected.

I'm running my office as well as I can, and I'm working as hard as I can under historically difficult circumstances. Nobody predicted or anticipated the kinds of challenges that 2020 would bring us. And yet, we managed to transition my staff to electronic procedures, electronic case filing and discovery and court appearances. We managed to file 4,300 new criminal cases, and I personally took a murder case that had been languishing for years to a grand jury and secured an indictment to move that case one step closer to trial.

I'm rolling up my sleeves and I'm personally doing the work to keep our cases moving forward and to help make San Francisco safer for all of us.

What role should the DA have in investigating ongoing scandals at City Hall?

When we talk about crime and we talk about accountability, the system does a really bad job remembering the victims. In every single case, there's someone who's harmed. And when you talk about corruption, all of us in San Francisco are victims of corruption.

We've seen this year a really staggering proportion of scandals in City Hall. And it's something that everyone in law enforcement, I think, needs to step up and do more on. I have a very small team working on those kinds of cases. Our primary focus is more traditional criminal cases brought to us by the San Francisco Police Department: burglaries, robberies, drug sales. Those are the cases that take up most of our resources.

But we do have a small, dedicated team investigating public integrity issues. And I can tell you that they are in many ways outmanned and outgunned by the U.S. attorney that has been working on this case evidently for a number of years with resources far beyond anything that the city allows us to spend on these kinds of cases. We would certainly like to do more. And it takes resources, it takes investigators, it takes wiretaps, it takes cooperating witnesses. And those are some of the things that we need.

Many SF residents feel under siege by break-ins and vandalism, and don't think your office is willing to prosecute those crimes. What's your response?

It's important that people be safe and it's important that people feel safe. Both things are important. The reality is that San Francisco has probably never been safer than it is right now. But I also know that people don't feel safe.

If you look at the data, it shows that in 2020, crime overall decreased in San Francisco by a historic 24.5%. That includes massive drops in auto burglaries, in petty theft, in assaults, in robberies — assaults and robberies, being the two most common violent crimes in San Francisco. Historic double-digit drops in those categories of crime.

Now, I want to be clear. I am not taking credit for those drops. We all know that the COVID-19 pandemic and the drastic reshaping of daily life in our city is what primarily accounts for those drops. And by the same token, we know that certain categories of crime have increased, things like burglary, residential and commercial, things like motor vehicle theft went up and things like discharge of firearms.

Now, those categories of crime went up in big cities all across the country without regard to who the police chief is, without regard to the local politics of the district attorney or the police union. These are national trends.

When I was on the campaign trail last year, one of the issues that was front and center for most San Francisco voters was auto burglaries. Auto burglaries dropped by about 40% last year. Now, some of the people who in 2019 committed those auto burglaries earn their living off property crime. And with fewer opportunities to break into tourist cars, with fewer opportunities to walk into stores and businesses and shoplift, some of those people resorted to going inside, the same way that all of us have gone inside during the pandemic. And so, yes, we did see an increase in other kinds of burglaries. We saw an increase of about 2,000 more burglaries.

Residential burglaries are a serious crime. It's a crime that I take very seriously. It's a case that carries a maximum punishment of up to six years in state prison. If we are given evidence from police sufficient to prove a case to a jury, we will file it and we will prosecute it. Having video evidence in a year where every single person is wearing a mask may not be adequate to prove who committed the burglary. Police may believe they know who did it, but it's up to my lawyers to prove to a jury of all of you listening, beyond any reasonable doubt, who did what and what their intent was when they broke in and stole something. That's the burden we have and we meet it in cases all the time and we prosecute those cases all the time.

How would you describe your relationship with the police?

I was elected on a very transparent and clear platform to enforce the law equally and to fight for racial justice and equity in our criminal justice system. To focus resources on root causes of crime so that we can break the revolving door that has come to so epitomize the failed American approach to criminal justice from coast to coast. And I have followed through on my commitments, despite the obstacles and despite the real challenges that both 2020 and the entrenched bureaucracy in the criminal justice system and the attacks from people like [SFPOA leader] Tony Montoya have put in our path.

I think the district attorney's office has a tremendous amount to be proud of this year. We responded aggressively and with leadership in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and a social justice and racial justice movement unlike any this country has ever seen. And we've played a leadership role in reimagining how we can promote public safety and support victims of crime while also decreasing our reliance on racist policies that have destroyed families and communities and bankrupted local governments.

But when individual police officers tell lies, like we don't prosecute, that does damage to our ability to keep San Franciscans safe and it makes people feel unsafe.

Here are the numbers: In 2020, we filed over 72% of the residential burglary charges the police brought us. But here's the problem: They only presented us with 285 possible cases to charge out of the 7,391 burglaries reported to the police. So if 90% of people who commit that crime aren't arrested, then people don't feel like there's a deterrent.

We need to support the police in doing a more effective job on the front end. And instead of having individual officers point the finger at me or my office, I'd love to work collaboratively with them. Chief Scott and I have a great relationship. We have regular meetings. If we could have that same level of collaboration and cooperation and collective responsibility all the way up and down the line, I think San Franciscans would not only feel safer, but they'd be safer.

What are you doing to hold police officers accountable who use excessive force?

It's a huge challenge. We filed what I believe to be the first ever homicide charges against a San Francisco Police Department officer while they were on duty for a killing. In this instance, it was an unarmed black man.

And I want to be really clear, I don't celebrate filing those criminal charges. Filing homicide charges is a very serious decision, whether it's a police officer or whether it's somebody else. And we make that decision after a careful and exhaustive review of all of the evidence.

But we have to have equal enforcement of the law. We have to have a system in which no one is above the law, regardless of their race or their wealth or the uniform they wear to work. And the reason that the POA has been attacking me since even before I was elected, the reason the kinds of lies were being told to residents and to crime victims even before I took office, is because of that fear of equal enforcement of the law.

The leadership in the POA is used to impunity. They want impunity, and they don't want transparency or sunshine on the small minority of officers who engage in excessive force or explicitly racist and discriminatory conduct.

The criminal justice system and public safety depend on having trust between the communities and the law enforcement agencies that have sworn to serve and protect then. And we will never have that trust until everyone knows that if you commit a crime, you will be treated equally regardless of your job title.

[POA leaders] are trying to exploit tragedy and fear, to roll back the reforms that are wildly popular across the state and here in San Francisco, reforms that are long overdue in terms of racial justice and racial equity and reforms that empirically have been shown to promote public safety. They are relying on fear mongering. They are relying on dishonesty and manipulation in order to go backwards in time to an era where state and local budgets were dominated by expenditures for prisons, for jails, for militarized police, instead of investments in public health, in drug treatment and safe consumption sites, in the kinds of things that San Francisco and good science and data tell us we need to promote public safety. And that's simply not good policy. But it's effective fear mongering.

What can San Francisco do to improve conditions in beleaguered neighborhoods like the Tenderloin?

The Tenderloin is the neighborhood that's the most diverse in all of San Francisco. It's also the neighborhood with the highest concentration of school-age children. And to see the state of affairs in the Tenderloin is really devastating.

We need a more effective approach and we cannot continue to recycle the same failed policies from the war on drugs. Now, to be clear, I have filed felony criminal charges in about 78% of the drug sales or possession for sales cases police have brought me this year. We are continuing to file those charges, even though we know they haven't worked in the past and we don't expect them to solve the problems today.

Here's what we need to be effective in communities like the Tenderloin:

First, safe consumption sites to prevent the horrific number of overdoses from drugs like Fentanyl. Second, treatment on demand so that when people who are struggling with and battling addiction are trying to get sober or trying to get clean and turn their lives around and get off the street and on their feet, they have somewhere to go to get help. Right now in San Francisco, it is easier to get high than it is to get help. And it doesn't matter how many felony criminal charges we file, as long as that continues to be true, the Tenderloin is not going to change.

We have filed charges. We've seen the U.S. attorney deport people involved in low-level drug sales, and none of it has changed the situation on the streets. What will change it is housing, treatment and safe consumption sites.

What about the cash bail issue?

This was a key issue for me for many years, as you know. Cash bail is a system really unique to the United States and the Philippines, where we have a for-profit private industry that basically buys people out of jail for a 10% nonrefundable fee.

If you have the money, you're out immediately. If you don't have the money, you languish behind bars.

And there's two fundamental problems with the cash bail system. First, it undermines public safety by allowing people, even people who are dangerous, to buy their way out and potentially go on to commit more crimes or harass victims. Second, it undermines the promise of equal protection under law.

You've got people charged, sometimes incorrectly, with things like shoplifting or drug sales. And when you're charged with a nonviolent crime and you have a presumption of innocence and you don't present a demonstrated public safety risk, the fact that you're poor cannot, in a system governed by equal protection, mean you languish behind bars while you await trial.

So when we ended money bail, we decided to replace a wealth-based system with a risk-based system. When my team of attorneys look at a case and look at an individual person accused of a crime's history and circumstances and believe there are no conditions that can protect the public with that person on the streets, we ask the court to detain them. It doesn't matter how wealthy they are.

And if we look at someone and believe that it's consistent with public safety, for them to be released, consistent with the constitutional protections and due process to which we're all entitled, then we ask the court to release them on appropriate conditions, conditions that we believe are adequate to keep the public safe and ensure that the person obeys the law while the case is pending.

It's a system that in some ways the entire state had to put into effect in response to COVID-19. We saw an order come out of the Judicial Council back in April, basically setting all nonviolent offenses at zero bail, meaning people would get released no matter how wealthy are poo they were. And what we saw, as in San Francisco, is that most categories of crime, crime overall, went down. And people continued to show up to court and people continued to do what they were told by the judges, for the most part.

What are you most proud of in your first year?

I'm proud of the work that we've done to support crime victims, particularly domestic violence victims, to provide them with housing. I'm proud of the fact that we've avoided an outbreak of COVID-19 in the jails, which we've seen happen all across the country. And that we've been able to work collaboratively with city government and with law enforcement agencies, even in the face of tragedy, of finger-pointing and of real obstacles from some folks, like the POA.

I think we have a lot to be proud of. And I think we never expected to solve the problems in our first year. And we've got three years ahead. And I look forward to working to make San Francisco safer for everyone.