The body is a fragile thing. And the civic body is also a fragile thing, subject to diseases of unrest that can threaten our very integration. And the body of San Francisco is in critical condition because many civil servants are harming the very people they’re sworn to protect, and I am here today to insist that we do everything we can to prevent another senseless death.
In 2015, police violence killed more people in the US than the flu and pneumonia combined, but it is underreported. Law enforcement related deaths must be counted, tracked and reported like any other cause of mortality affecting public health. Currently, there is no reliable public health data on the number of police killings because of long-standing resistance from police departments to publicly disclose this information. We had the San Francisco Firearm Injury Reporting System for a year, 15 years ago, a collaboration between public health advocates, the SFPD and the City. Since then, there has been no system of accountability to or oversight from the public for these deaths.
In 2016, it is alarming that we have to rely upon a newspaper in the UK to track and report police deaths. We have an excellent public health system in this country that allows us to track real-time national occurrences of notifiable diseases. Doctors and the public health department need to be directly involved because the people we serve are being killed, and those that remain are traumatized by what they are seeing.
Police, like doctors, have our lives in their hands. Police, like doctors, work in service of the public and should ultimately need to answer directly to the public. But unlike doctors, there are laws that allow police to use deadly force, even when situations call for de-escalation and tactics to ensure the most vulnerable people—our mentally ill—are safe. These laws need to change. And the training of officers must change, because we are not at war here in this city.
The combination of racism, police violence and police impunity creates a lethal mixture which we are watching manifest all over the US and right here in our beloved city, San Francisco. Just as epidemic outbreaks can threaten public health, so can police violence especially when impunity leaves communities vulnerable, and when civil unrest ensues.
The body is fragile a thing, and it can break under too much stress. How can it be, in a city such as San Francisco, with its incredible history of diversity and support for human rights, with its legendary status as a place of tolerance and openness, and with its present wealth that could be channeled in so many ways to bring us the best of all possible worlds—how can it be that five of our fellow citizens are now willing to forfeit their very lives just to draw our attention to this particular violence that continues to traumatize our communities? I ask myself, what kind of city are we living in? And I ask myself, what kind of city do we want?
As a doctor, I wish to remind my fellow community servants, law enforcement officers and their leadership, that our duty is to serve, and that service is to safeguard the health of our communities, each and every member. We are not serving when we escalate the potency of disease. We are not serving when our intervention results in heightened conflict, harm, and death. I ask that police officers and city officials of SF have the courage to step forward and break the code of silence around the department, so that together, we can bring forth a new vision of policing, one that works with the public and with local health departments and health providers and holds community health for all at its center.