Commentary

Commentary: Julie Pitta

A Recall Will Not Heal What Ails San Francisco

Retired Police Commander Richard Corriea Calls for Thoughtful Solutions to Complex Problems

By Julie Pitta 

Richard Corriea sees a San Francisco in pain. The worsening gap between rich and poor, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, is evident on city streets. 

It has left San Franciscans afraid and grasping for easy solutions. Their fear must be acknowledged, says Corriea. But knee-jerk reactions, like recalling San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, will solve nothing. 

Corriea enjoyed a long and storied career in law enforcement. The long-time Richmond District resident ­– he is the fourth generation of his family to live in the neighborhood – joined the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) in 1980. Members of Corriea’s family have been members SFPD since before the 1906 earthquake. 

During the next 34 years, he worked his way up from beat cop to police commander. After retiring from the SFPD in 2014, Corriea, who holds MBA and Juris Doctor (J.D.) degrees, has worked in the security industry and currently serves as an ombudsman for people in residential care facilities. Today, he serves as director of the University of San Francisco’s Institute of Criminal Justice Leadership. 

Corriea also experienced the criminal justice system as the family member of a victim. Corriea’s older brother, Robert, was murdered in 1988. He was killed by an Oklahoma City drifter, Ronnie Lee Barnes; Robert’s remains were discovered in a trash heap along a rural Oklahoma road months after he disappeared. Barnes was convicted of first-degree murder.

Despite what many consider a successful prosecution, Corriea and his family were left scarred – first by the investigation and later by the trial. 

“We wound up being spectators,” he remembered. “Because I was in law enforcement, I think we were treated better than most. But it was terrible, especially for my parents. I still carry the pain of that experience.” 

Corriea understands the criminal justice system, and believes that safety is paramount if a city is to prosper. He opposes the recall of District Attorney Chesa Boudin in a vote scheduled for June 7.  The reason? “Its promoters would have you believe that San Francisco would be safer if we just dumped a district attorney,” Corriea said. “That is ridiculous.”  

Then newly elected district attorney, Chesa Boudin, reached out to Corriea shortly after taking office. A phone call led to a series of conversations about the criminal justice system. 

“We don’t always agree, but he always listens,” Corriea said. 

Corriea sees much in the criminal justice system that needs to change. He described a complex system in which offenders are arrested, convicted and incarcerated only to re-offend upon release. About two-thirds of the offenders are re-incarcerated.  

Victims, like the Corriea family, are treated as little more than a piece of evidence, a means to an end. Their pain is largely ignored. 

“When people say, they want to go back to the good old days of (criminal justice policies), I answer, ‘What good old days?’ Because I can’t seem to find them.”

Boudin has offered new approaches to the problems of mistreatment of victims and people cycling trough the criminal justice system. As promised, he has implemented alternatives to incarceration, seeking solutions that will result in lasting rehabilitation. Significantly, he is looking to place victims at the center of the process, adding the number of victim advocates and instituting a restorative justice process for non-violent crimes. 

Boudin has added a victims-advocate department, which seeks to assure that victims and their survivors are treated respectfully, kept informed and, where appropriate, provided access to victim services. He has also instituted a restorative justice process which, when requested by victims of non-violent crimes, allows those victims to communicate with and work with the perpetrators to fashion alternative remedies while still holding them accountable for their conduct. 

Corriea believes that pro-recall partisans are exploiting the complexity and lack of transparency in the criminal justice system, while ignoring the impacts of social problems, the pandemic and generally ineffective public policy. 

San Franciscans are frightened by the perception of disorder in the streets. The pandemic changed crime trends here and elsewhere. Poverty has become more visible. 

“To the average San Franciscan, what they’re seeing on the streets is evidence that something is wrong; disorder can trigger a sense of foreboding about safety and risk,” Corriea said. 

Some are engaging in magical thinking, believing that Boudin’s removal will be a salve for all that ails San Francisco. 

“When people are afraid, they want that fear to go away,” Corriea said. “People have been led to believe that the removal of this district attorney will make everything right again.”

He believes that real answers to crime – and the fear of crime – deserve thoughtful consideration, the kind of conversations which are had during a traditional election. A recall, without an opposing candidate, is being advanced by surrogates using half-truths to further their agenda. Neither the surrogates nor their arguments can be properly vetted by voters.

“A half-truth is a whole lie,” Corriea said.

“As a San Franciscan, I understand that people are worried, but I’m pained by the aggressive and hateful discourse that the recall effort has inspired,” he said. “Instead of recall, we should challenge all our electeds to work together to make San Francisco the safest and most just big city in America.”

Problems that can be traced to decades of failed public policies will not disappear without “an end-game strategy to move people out of poverty, to address drug abuse and mental illness,” Corriea said.  “Any system that allows people to rot on the street and die is broken. The entire City-family shares responsibility for this situation.” 

San Franciscans must come together to address the root causes of criminality. While perhaps momentarily satisfying, creating a scapegoat will not heal the City.

Julie Pitta is a neighborhood activist. She is a former senior editor for Forbes Magazine and staff writer for the Los Angeles Times. You can email her at julie.pitta@gmail.com Follow her on Twitter: @juliepitta

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