Thursday, November 15, 2012

The people in the pictures are people.

Dear Chronicle Reader Rep:

This is to express concern about the C.W. Nevius column on "chronic inebriates" in this morning's Chronicle and the photos of police stops that are used to illustrate it.

The approach taken to the photos and photo captions implies an assumption that the visibly poor people depicted do not have names, faces, friends, family or reputations worth respecting.

The context of the photos implies that the people shown are among the "chronic inebriates" subject to the special arrest program that Mr. Nevius describes in his article. If the people pictured have not actually been singled out for this program, then the combination of article, photos, and photo captions depicts them in a false light.

Strangely, police officers are named even when the only parts of them shown are their midsections -- yet subjects of their stops are not named, not even when depicted recognizably, as in the striking full-face photo of the distressed gray-haired woman. The decision not to identify the people shown sitting on the sidewalk implies that they are merely examples of something, not individuals. If your decision not to publish their names was based on deference to their privacy, then it would have been consistent also to refrain from showing their faces.

Mr. Nevius recently wrote something about San Francisco loving underdogs. Is this any way to treat underdogs?

I'm further concerned that Mr. Nevius doesn't explain clearly either the legal procedure being inflicted on people with accumulated citations, or the legal argument that Public Defender Jeff Adachi is making in response.

Being a lawyer myself with significant experience defending "quality of life" citations, I can read a bit between the lines. Hence can guess Mr. Adachi is concerned, as I would be, about the impression that people are being effectively sentenced without trial. If so, Mr. Adachi's objections are not trivial: they arise from the heart of our ostensibly shared American respect for the rule of law.

That is, Mr. Nevius seems to be saying that selected defendants are being arrested while sober and law-abiding, purely for the offense of failure to appear on previously issued charges that have not yet been adjudicated. If I'm understanding correctly, they are being brought before a judge who gives them choices between rehab and jail time without ever testing the truthfulness of the underlying charges.

Again, if I'm understanding correctly, this would be an unjust blurring of the distinction between an accusation and a conviction. It would be failing to distinguish between the authority of a policeman and the authority of a judge. It would contribute to the erosion of our American notion of due process of law.

But most readers won't understand this because it's not explained clearly enough.

If Mr. Nevius had spoken to Mr. Adachi for comment, as he appears not to have done, Mr. Adachi could have explained the principle involved to him in simple words that would have made the article fairer as well as more informative.

You also have people on your staff who do regularly explain well what due process is and what it is for. You have Bob Egelko, dean of West Coast legal journalism, who is both a lawyer and a wise and decent man. Can you get him to deliver an in-house lecture on the Fourteenth Amendment one of these fine days?


Martha Bridegam
SoMa, San Francisco

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