Law and Order Not Like Law and Order

Public Defender Jeff Adachi is also a filmmaker, and Defender, a documentary about his work, premieres at SFIFF this Saturday.

Shows like Law and Order and its many spin-offs present the justice system as fun and fair, says San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi. But that’s pretty far from his experience.  

Adachi has made several documentaries, including Slanted Screen (which deals with representations of Asian men onscreen), and You Don’t Know Jack (about actor Jack Soo from Flower Drum Song and Barney Miller, who was born Goro Suzuki but passed as Chinese due to anti-Japanese sentiment). For a while, Adachi has wanted to make a feature about the public defender’s office, so when Stephen Gong, the director of the Center for Asian American Media, approached him proposing he make a movie about criminal justice, Adachi didn’t hesitate.

The 57-year-old Adachi started with a short film about a 22-year-old African American man named Michael Smith. Upon exiting a BART train in San Francisco after a fellow passenger falsely accused him of attempted robbery, Smith was wrestled to the ground by police officers who charged with nine counts of resisting arrest. (He was escorting his pregnant girlfriend to a doctor’s appointment.)

Adachi took the case, the first to involve officers wearing body cameras. He used the images to make the case that Smith’s arrest, and the treatment he received, were racially motivated.

You’ll see that story in Defender, made by Adachi and Jim Choi. It screens as part of the 60th San Francisco International Film Festival at the Castro Theatre for free on Saturday, April 15. But there’s more.

“It’s about the whole fight to get public defenders to represent immigrants facing deportations,” Adachi said about the documentary. “We had to convince the mayor and the Board of Supervisors to do this. Also there’s the common narrative that public defenders’ offices are understaffed and overworked, and in too many cases that’s true, but our office is a model office. I don’t want to toot my own horn here, but when I was elected in 2002, the budget was $13 million — and today it’s $35 million.”

Adachi fought hard for that, so instead of having hundreds of cases per year, the way many colleagues around the country operate, the attorneys in his office deal with 40 or 50. That money also means he can  hire investigators and paralegals.

“It’s what you would expect if you were hiring a private lawyer,” Adachi says. “We like to say it’s the best representation money can’t buy.”

Along with showing him with his client, the movie also reveals some of Adachi’s personal life, with co-director Jim Choi turning the camera on Adachi.

“He followed me everywhere doing the case, so you see what you would not usually see. It was a little nerve-wracking. I’m used to being the director, but I had to let it go, and just be truthful,” Adachi said. “It was uncomfortable sometimes. My life is very busy, and I am out and about if I’m not working on a case — and it shows the toll that has on other aspects of my life.”

Adachi says because of his job he has a unique lens on racial profiling and bias.

“Every day I see young people of color and how they’re treated,” he said. “I think people are going to be shocked when they see this, with San Francisco’s reputation as being a progressive city. Less than five percent of our population is African-American, but 56 percent of the jail population is African American, and why is that?”

Defender, April 15, 3 p.m., at the Castro Theatre, 429 Castro Street,

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