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A summer classic: Moral panic over a pier shooting

Jonathan Simon, professor of law | July 8, 2015

It is a reminder of how hard the past is to leave behind (especially when your leading politicians belong to it). By now the whole nation knows the basic facts: Francisco Sanchez, a 45- or 52-year-old Mexican national, shot and killed Kathryn Steinle, 32-year-old resident of a nearby suburb, in a chance encounter along San Francisco’s popular, and seemingly safe, waterfront Embarcadero Boulevard last week.

It had all the makings of what criminologists call a “moral panic” — an untoward event, small or large, that becomes a vehicle for vast social and political anxieties over race, class and national identity. A low-status villain — non-white, poor, non-citizen, long criminal record, multiple incarcerations — kills a high-status victim — white, middle class, citizen, mother of children, never been in trouble with the law.  It occurs where it should not, in a place associated with comfort and recreation. Events like this sometimes stay just local news, but given the right conditions, they can blow up into a policy storm of significant magnitude. Will this one?

It comes at a time when white anxiety over the growing Latino population in the United States has become a dominant obsession with the Republican party. Indeed, Republican politicians have found themselves in something of a dilemma over which to attack among two of their favorite targets: liberal cities like San Francisco or the Obama administration.

Since the dominant media narrative has focused on the decision of the San Francisco sheriff’s department to release Sanchez, after the marijuana possession warrant he was being held on was dismissed — without notifying ICE (the Immigration Control and Enforcement agency) as requested — Republicans and now Senator Diane Feinstein, have decided to focus their rage on the city’s sanctuary policy, which mandates non-cooperation with the aggressive detention and deportation policies of recent years. Feinstein wrote SF Mayor Ed Lee yesterday, excoriating the City and its sanctuary policy, and all but blaming them for the crime.

Familiar narrative

The story line is a familiar one to politicians of Feinstein’s generation, who rose to maturity and power addressing it. In Feinstein’s case, this was quite literal, as she became mayor of San Francisco in 1978 after the high-profile City Hall murders of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor and civil-rights leader Harvey Milk.

According to the logic that became common sense during the high crime eras of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, state and local justice systems were overwhelmed by crime and prone to ignoring criminal threats by dumping known threats on the streets. According to this thinking (which I described at length in my 2007 book Governing through Crime), only tough laws limiting judicial discretion, and federal mandates requiring that felons serve the vast majority of their sentences and protect Americans. The result: mass incarceration and mass deportation.

A closer look at the narrative surrounding the Sanchez case reveals it for the ideological construction it is. In fact, Sanchez epitomizes why the logic of exclusion and segregation that undergird our wars on crime and terror can never achieve public safety.

Start with the focus on San Francisco’s sheriff and the city’s sanctuary policy. It seem obvious and outrageous to Sen. Feinstein that Ms. Steinle would not have been killed that night but for the sheriff’s and city’s failure to incarcerate him until he could be deported.

But who was really the proximate cause of Mr. Sanchez’s presence in San Francisco? He didn’t start here, but instead in federal prison, where he was serving time for repeated unlawful entries to the United States.

Nothing in federal law required ICE to bring Sanchez to San Francisco to address a 20-year-old warrant for marijuana possession. Such charges are routinely dismissed in San Francisco and other cities, and the feds had apparently deported him five times during that period without feeling compelled to bring him to answer justice in San Francisco. Most likely the overworked ICE staff found the warrant and realized it would be easier to dump him on San Francisco then complete the paper work necessary to deport him promptly (or even generate the kind of immigration warrant rather than “hold” what would have prevented Sanchez’s release even under the sanctuary policy).

Dangerous felon?

A second phony element is the idea that Sanchez was obviously dangerous because of his seven felonies. In fact, as the media realized pretty early, all but one of these felonies were for drugs or illegal reentry, and only one was for assault (the least serious form of crime against the person, the equivalent of a fist fight).

If anything, Sanchez’s record is monument to how stretched the felony concept has become in our time. Seven felonies sure sound scary, until you actually look at them. There is nothing about his record that would have signaled to San Francisco sheriff’s deputies that Sanchez posed a serious threat. He appeared to be a not untypical inmate in the jail: poor, disorganized, a drug user without a stable family or work life, and probably some mental illness (indeed I suspect he has a chronic mental illness and decompensated for lack of proper treatment during his federal imprisonment).

The shooting of Kathryn Steinle appears to be a tragic escalation of Sanchez’s lifestyle. The weapon was apparently found on the beach (latest reports suggest it belonged to a federal agent). He admits to having been high on cannabis and sleeping pills. She was shot in the back, consistent with his “accident” defense. His most persistent deliberate pattern was apparently returning to the United States — not to prey on its citizens a la Donald Trump, but to support himself and perhaps to stay in contact with family here.

So what to conclude from the Sanchez case? Trying to protect ourselves from random violence by incarcerating and deporting people, on the basis of race and often-inflated criminal records, is deeply flawed (and far from the slam-dunk solution that Sen. Feinstein believes).

Lessons from criminology

The underlying theory here is that crime is a product of dangerous people. Lock up or deport the dangerous people and the problem is solved. But criminology now suggests that crime is situational, a product of people with chaotic lives, substance abuse, and chance encounters in environments that provide either accelerants or de-accelerants (think of the gun that Sanchez found).

There is no perfect solution, save for the ideal of fixing all our “broken toys” (and even unbroken ones break in the spur of the moment). Instead, careful mental-health screening of the jail population, and attentive post-release efforts to keep people with mental health needs and drug-abuse histories on the right medications and off the wrong ones, could do far better than incarceration for people like Sanchez (what about his previous imprisonments protected us?).

Nor, quite clearly, is deportation a solution. For two decades now, we’ve been aggressively deporting people we label “criminal aliens,” creating significant gang problems in countries like Guatemala and El Salvador (many of them, in fact, have recreated the same gang milieus they used to survive in the United States) without doing much to reduce crime here.

I suspect this moral panic will run its course without uprooting San Francisco’s sanctuary policy or placing Donald Trump in the White House. The general trend is away from harsh and exclusionary policies in both criminal justice and immigration.

Sadly, the punitive storm that has arisen around Francisco Sanchez and the killing of Kathryn Steinle is a reminder of how powerful the hold of crime-panic journalism, and hyperventilating crime-warrior politicians like Feinstein, remains on our public policy and how slow reform will probably be.

Cross-posted from Prawfsblawg.

Comments to “A summer classic: Moral panic over a pier shooting

  1. We have laws concerning immigration to protect citizens. When those laws are ignored, allowing a convicted felon (who would not have been allowed to legally enter the country the first time) to re-enter 6 times, reveals so many issues that outage is very appropriate.

    The border should be secured and immigration laws applied for entry and becoming citizens regardless of the country of origin. This assures the security and improved economic well being of all US citizens and is consistent with US citizens seeking entry to Canada or those from south of Mexico entering Mexico.

    In this case, an individual has repeatedly broken the law, been prosecuted and deported at taxpayer expense and immediately returned to the magnet (sanctuary city). Attracting illegal immigrants to San Francisco — where survival depends on dumpster diving for drugs to achieve a heightened state for playing with a loaded weapon on a crowded pier leading to a death — is no way to run a city.

    What opportunities exist for individuals with no education or training in a city where the average college educated couple has to work 20 years to afford to buy a home?

    For Sanchez after five deportations, the felonies reached the murder level, taking the life of a Cal Poly graduate, innocent young woman, trying to enjoy time with her father at a tourist attraction. For anyone who believes offering a sanctuary for illegal felons to live as homeless with crime as the only option for survival, please look at the UC Berkeley IGS poll of Californians’ opinions on sanctuary cities.

    The San Francisco Sheriff should not have requested Sanchez be returned for a 20 year-old marijuana warrant that there was absolutely no chance would be prosecuted. ICE should not have released custody when it was obvious what would happen when SF failed to prosecute. Obama should allow border security and ICE to perform in accordance with their charters. All are guilty for negligence leading to a death and all suffer from responsibility deficit disorder.

  2. Professor Simon is to be commended for his analysis of the “moral panic” that often follows a well-publicized crime. Numerous examples could be adduced from recent history, and they should serve as warnings to anyone who is tempted to seize on a story and to inflate it into a Cause that will energize the nation.

    One need only look at the sad case of Trayvon Martin. Or Michael Brown. Or the Rolling Stone article on rape at the University of Virginia. Or the case of the Duke lacrosse team. Or the “mattress”-carrying student at Columbia.

    Each of these stories occasioned a kind of panic, as we were repeatedly told that a “rape culture” flourished on college campuses, or that law enforcement was slaughtering young African-American men. But the denouement of each story was similar. In every case, the initial story trumpeted by the mass media was shown to be defective: incomplete at best, erroneous at worst.

    Whether “sanctuary cities” ought to exist is a valid subject of debate. Let us not be guided by the passions of the moment. Let cool heads prevail.

    • Thanks for this post.

      I fear, however, that the intersection of (i) people skeptical of “rape culture” fearmongering and (ii) those (like Professor Simon) urging restraint in the Steinle case is vanishingly small.

      Oh and this denouement you speak of in the rape culture case? News to me here in Berkeley. Rape culture discourse is more strident than ever.

  3. If he decompensated, it happened while he was in SFSO’s custody or while on the streets and not in the custom of BOP. And, without some form of supervision, there was no guarantee Mr Sanchez would follow up with county mental health for any needed treatment.

  4. Oh please. I suppose we should have seen this post coming. Your blog post is just as predictable as the “moral panic” that follows a high-status victim / low-status villain crime.

    You give us the slow elevation of the villain to “innocent victim” status, and then the real criminal is revealed: dysfunctional US law and immigration policies. I’ll agree with you that there is plenty of dysfunction to go around; however, the system tried mightily to be functional by deporting Sanchez six times.

    I suppose there’s nothing you can do when a criminal is bound and determined to keep coming back. Terming the denouement of this as a “tragic escalation” of his lifestyle, however, is nearly as insulting as it is vague and meaningless. And let’s not forget your insinuation that each time he returned, he was essentially getting job training in how to be a lifelong criminal. I suppose this goes under the heading, “Is this a great country or what?”

    Sanchez is a family man. He came back to be with his family, and also for cannabis, sleeping pills, and to find guns on beaches. Again, what a great country. And shooting someone in the back is nearly axiomatic after what our great society has provided for him.

    So there you have it. The criminal is not Sanchez, but rather the situation. I feel much better, and no doubt so too does Sanchez. To top it off, the solution in your follow-up post was so obvious, I’m embarrassed I didn’t see it sooner: A decent social worker could have eased him into a stable life. That noise you hear is the laughter of all decent social workers.

    Let people have their outrage and their “hyperventilation.” Your post helps not a whit.

  5. Great objective article. I would like to publish it in El Reportero if you don’t mind. However, if it is possible, I would like you to cut 250 word because of space. We are a bilingual newspaper in SF Bay Area.

  6. I was apparently wrong about the origin of the decision to recall Francisco Sanchez to San Francisco. It was employees of the Sheriff’s office and not ICE that made the call ( the rationale of which remains mysterious see the SF Gate story here.

    My essential point remains. The crime-panic angle being worked by most of the journalists and by the Boomer politicians trying to act like it’s 1999 is wrong both factually and in terms of public policies. The death of Kathryn Steinle is an absolute catastrophe for her family and a loss for the whole city. We should mourn her today but not turn her death into a 1990s-style mobilization around making are laws harsher and more exclusionary.

    No matter how many times you say it, until her shot Steinle, possibly in a drunken accident, Sanchez was guilty mostly of being criminalized multiple times for liking drugs and the United States. How was Ms. Steinle or any of us made safer by his five deportations and multiple incarcerations? A decent social worker might have saved her life and society millions of dollars years ago by getting Mr. Sanchez into some kind of stable life. Incarcerations and deportations only served to destabilize him and ultimately escalated his criminal conduct.

  7. Jonathan,

    I’d like to touch on a point you made in your essay

    – BOP returned Mr Sanchez to SFSO at SFSO’s request, based on the 20 year old warrant. SFSO sent a private transportation team to return him to their jail on March 27th. SFSO held him until April 15th and released him into the community without any supervision, and limited access to mental health treatment. If he decompensated, it happened while he was in SFSO’s custody or while on the streets and not in the custom of BOP. And, without some form of supervision, there was no guarantee Mr Sanchez would follow up with county mental health for any needed treatment.

    Thank you

  8. The facts of the crime are not even that convenient for the tough on crime narrative that Donald Trump and now even Diane Feinstein are both pushing, but those inconveniences will not matter to some Americans or more specifically to a minority of white Americans.

    How is it even possible to jump into conclusions with such a small and flawed sample? Apparently some can still manage…

    Three observations:

    1) Looking at the Homicide Report from the LA Times confirms what the Professor implies. There is plenty of low-status women that have been murdered just this year that are not going to get any national or even local attention. Even the latest female murder, a relatively high-status white woman, Carrie Jean Melvin, would probably not get that much attention despite being killed randomly but intentionally with a shotgun shot(s) on the back of her head. The reason is that the criminal does not fit the description of a 5 feet something Latino….and thus could not be used for political purposes (she was murdered three days ago; just do a search using her name).

    2) I am old enough to have seen the consequences of the “War on Drugs” in my country of Guatemala. Most people that fled the country left not as career criminals but as poor, economic migrants, and a minority of them or their children came back to Guatemala changed as hardened, sophisticated, and extremely violent criminals and gang members. It was the USA, and not Guatemala, that taught a minority of these immigrants to victimize other people. That is a fact. Now the three northern countries in Central America have some of the highest homicide rates in the world, mainly because of international gangs (that are based and were started in the U.S.) or Mexicans cartels. There is a little hope for change in Central America because the U.S. policies that contribute to this are not going to be changed (mass incarceration in the U.S., criminalization of drug offenses, the War on Drugs, gun control, etc…)

    3) Maybe the greatest strength of this country is its openness and cosmopolitanism. There are many, many historical examples of geopolitical powers that have reverted inwards, and this insularity has been a characteristic of every beginning of an almost irreversible decline and world irrelevance.

    This is not the first wave of immigrants this country has had to deal with and neither should be its last. This country’s wellbeing has depended and still depends on these demographic changes.

    • Sustainability is an extremely important and timely concept. To sustain (sostener) means “to keep from falling or sinking, to nourish or keep alive.”
      Country A has a density of 286 people per square mile vs Country B which has a density of 14 people per square mile.

      So how did Country A get so many more people per square mile?

      Well, Country A has a population that is approximately 95% members of “The Church” and as a direct consequence Country A has a birthrate more than double the birthrate of Country B.

      Oh, and by the way, Country A has only 12% arable land vs significantly more arable land (18%) in Country B.

      So all leftists unite and shout down the advocates of sustainability who say the most immediate and obvious solution is for Country A to reduce its birthrate.
      Whoa, No, No way, Heresy!!! In Country A “The Church” is the big boss, machismo is the clear imperative, financial waste is due to foreign banks, and on top of that all poor people who want to move from Country A to Country B should be allowed to do so and no immmigrant from Country A should ever be returned even if convicted of felonies in Country B!

      If this is too complicated, just remember the basic rule: All problems in Country A are caused by (vituperar,culpar) Country B!
      (Country A = Guatemala, Country B = United States). In fact, this denial game motivates the blameless (inocente) to proclaim incessantly that all problems in all poor countries in the world are caused by those big bad countries that ‘sacrilegiously’ and wimpishly place a priority on sustainability instead of machismo & “The Holy Book.”

      • Let’s put some order to this:

        1) Selection bias

        Country B (USA) is a big (that is big in size) and underpopulated country. Country A (Guatemala) is a small (small in size…) country. In a big space a lot of people occupy less space than in a smaller space. In a considerably smaller space less people occupy more space. So if we take away from the US Alaska and the West, the country has a very different population density. Most of the US population is concentrated in the East, because it is where historically Europeans first arrived after escaping a variety of situations in the small, “overpopulated” continent of Europe… New Jersey, the “garden state,” has a population density of 1,210/sq.mi. Way above the one in Guatemala.

        But both places, regardless of population density, have probably food security. Besides the argument lacks common sense as most of the US depends on the underpopulated states in the Midwest and the West for crops and cereals. Does that mean the US population should be equally distributed so that there are no states that depend on other ones for food security? Of course not. But one thing is states, what about between different countries? As stated before Guatemala has plenty of food, and even water or arable land. But even if Guatemala imports cereals from the USA, this is only done because the US subsidizes those cereals, in a very anticapitalist manner and contrary to market economics. So why shouldn’t Guatemala import corn and wheat being sold at a loss. Ironically, conservatives and rightists are the ones that support such anticapitalist policies because of political and machiavellian reasons.

        Is there hunger in Guatemala? Yes, but there’s plenty of hunger in the USA, and not only experienced by minorities but by plenty of white people too (just in case the latter are the only important ones).

        Regarding arable land, what matters is the size of that arable land and the number of people (not density….pffff). 5% of Russia is not the same as 5% of Tuvalu even if there’s more people in Russia. And it is a fact that very little arable land is needed to feed people nowadays. Most of the world’s hunger problems are political (hint read Amartya Sen, a Nobel prize winner).

        2) Translating for English speakers

        “Google translate” Spanish translations? Really? If my first or last names were Norwegian or Israeli, would a parenthetical translation have been provided in Norwegian or Hebrew, respectively? It shows either being condescending or outright prejudicial to do it for Latin Americans.

        3) Drama and over-the-top statements

        “So all leftist unite and shout dow the advocates of sustainability” (referring to advocates like the dave pacific here)…..the level of victimhood and generalization is quite over the top…. Is there really some kind of conspiracy against such little blog posters…? Maybe there’s a real misconception about the political and economic ideas present today at UC Berkeley. To some that might have never been here or that have not been here in quite a while, UC Berkeley is a bastion of socialist, communist, or exclusively of just leftist ideas. But there’s plenty of non-progressive, anachronistic stances and ideas on campus. I suggest stating with checking a calendar. It should point out that this is 2015 and not 1965.

        4) “The Church,” “The Holy Book” and machismo (quotes by author, which I find as strange and patronizing use of such for those concepts…)

        Guatemala is less than 50% Catholic. It is about 40% Protestant. A big percentage of Catholics are non-practicing. Most Protestants are the opposite, very engaged and participating weekly in their religion. So which “The Church” is the comment referring to? This level of prejudice really requires a lot of patience. There is no religion that Guatemalans follow blindly. I know that there is still a lot of anti-Catholicism in the USA, but before assuming that every Latin American country is a carbon copy of one another, reading (books not websites) might be useful.

        What is understood by “machismo”? If it means male chauvinism it is not an exclusive, organizing principle to Latin America. There is plenty (plenty) of male chauvinism here in this country. Besides there are plenty (plenty) of Latin American countries that have had female presidents and have a higher percentage of parliamentary and judicial members than the USA, and nobody talks about American “machismo.”

        5) How much responsibility does the USA has over the problems of “its hemisphere?”

        The Cold War was fought in countries like mine. With the exception of the American failures in North Korea and Vietnam and the USSR failure in Afghanistan, American or USSR troops were not massively involved in most conflicts were the Cold War was fought. Reading a little bit (books not websites) might illuminate the protagonist role the USA took upon itself in Latin America (read Monroe doctrine, military coups, antidemocratic interventions, the United Fruit Company, anti labor violence, covert murders, favoring the leadership of military or white minorities, the Cold War, modern day narcotics consumption, training of gang members, neoliberal privatizations the kind the USA never did in Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, or Germany, etc…….)

        Malthusian arguments about population growth in developing countries is such an already proven failed argument… Again in 2015, really?….Do some people still not know that most population growth in the world would come from subsaharan Africa? These are opportunities and not problems, unless you happen to view race, immigration, gender, and religion as problems and unsurmountable challenges.

        • At Berkeley, the Bixby Center (17 University Hall) addresses and connects the critical issues of population, health, and sustainability.

          Of specific note is a presentation by Ms. Rebecca Braun who as a doctoral fellow traveled to Guatemala to work on research projects investigating barriers to family planning. Her fact-based presentation (search “Braun” at paints a pretty stark picture of the problems children and women face in Guatemala.

          Another similar report on how family planning clashes with religion and tradition was reported on a PBS Newshour documentary. The condition of children in Guatemala is absolutely dire.

          The obvious solution is to have fewer children who will be better taken care of …. but the Braun presentation has a slide that shows that 2 of the primary barriers to such a humanitarian solution are “Church” and “partner”.

  9. A citizen (Kathryn Steinle) was slain by a felon (Francisco Sanchez) illegally in the United States, and in reality most citizens are not in “a moral panic” about this; in point of fact most citizens are outraged by this.

    Misframing this slaying as being about “race, class and national identity” is perverse in its attempt to shift the blame to American society, and pointing a finger at Senator Feinstein ignores the comments of the other relevant political figures:

    Nancy Pelosi: “…to focus our immigration enforcement resources where they belong: deporting felons.”

    Barbara Boxer: “For decades, I have supported deporting violent criminals, and I have always believed that sanctuary should not be given to felons.”

    Hillary Clinton: In her first national television interview, Hillary Clinton said that San Francisco “made a mistake” by not deporting Francisco Sanchez.

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