Police aggressively handle low-level crimes to boost SF’s image as international tourist spot

By Terry Collins, AP
Saturday, February 27, 2010

SF police, new chief tackle quality of life crimes

SAN FRANCISCO — In the Tenderloin, not far from tourists at the historic cable car turnaround, the city’s incoming police chief was shocked to see open drug dealing.

Then, in the swank Union Square shopping area, Sacramento’s visiting mayor had his luggage swiped from outside a hotel.

And in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, crucible for the hippie movement and the 1960s Summer of Love, residents and storekeepers have been complaining about overbearing transients blocking pedestrians and panhandling with their pit bulls by their sides.

This tourist mecca, known for its panoramic views and liberal outlook, is grappling with quality-of-life crimes — and the perception that its cherished sense of forbearance has gotten out of hand.

“This is a city that absolutely relies on visitors as its main economic driver,” said Steve Falk, executive director of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce. “San Francisco is known for having a high level of tolerance, but … the line has to be drawn somewhere, and I think San Franciscans are ready for that to happen.”

Last year, the city’s overall crime rate was the lowest in decades, with homicides down more than 50 percent. But a groundswell of gripes about “nuisance crimes” has made combatting them a priority for Police Chief George Gascon since he arrived last summer.

The chief has gone so far as proposing a citywide “sit-lie” ordinance that would give police the authority to move and cite those who block sidewalks or otherwise intimidate pedestrians to address problems like those in the Haight-Ashbury.

“There are a substantial number of people who want to see this happen. They’re very frustrated,” Gascon said in an interview. “It’s beyond the tipping point. The anger is very real. I’m hoping we can come up with a powerful policy that makes sense for everybody.”

Mayor Gavin Newsom, who recently moved to Haight Ashbury and was previously hesitant about Gascon’s proposal due to potential divisiveness, said he will now introduce the ordinance this week to the city’s Board of Supervisors.

Newsom said he constantly hears complaints from merchants while jogging or grabbing his morning coffee. He also told the San Francisco Chronicle that he recently saw a guy smoking crack while taking his infant daughter on a stroll down Haight Street.

“It’s a lot of behavior issues, a lot of drug-related and transient issues and I’m sensitive to the challenges of some of these folks,” Newsom told The Associated Press. “But, at the same time, there’s families there, kids in strollers, merchants there barely making ends meet. We’ve got to find a compromise.”

Newsom spokesman Tony Winnicker, said Saturday that “the compromise is giving the police and the community another tool to tackle those behavioral and street thug issues.”

Change cannot come soon enough for Kelsey Kolberg. The clothing store manager was recently smoking outside her shop on Haight Street when a transient accosted her after demanding a cigarette. Kolberg said the man slapped her cigarette out of her hand, grabbed her wrists and started wrestling with her while passersby and other transients looked on.

“They did nothing to help stop him,” Kolberg, 35, said. She said the man was arrested and charged with a misdemeanor.

Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Police Executive Research Forum, who has studied San Francisco’s crime trends, said cracking down on street-level crimes helps prevent more violent incidents.

New York City has been widely credited with being the first big city to introduce “quality of life” enforcement of such crimes as disorderly conduct, public drinking, prostitution and panhandling in the early 1990s. Under a “zero tolerance” policy, police made more arrests and crime dropped. Washington, D.C., Chicago and Tampa, Fla. soon followed suit.

Critics, however, say the practice unfairly targets the poor, homeless and people of color. “If you illegalize sleeping, camping, lying, sitting, congregating, then what’s left: Walking?” said Paul Boden, director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, a nonprofit that aids the homeless.

Recent high-profile incidents in San Francisco have reignited the quality-of-life crime debate.

Gascon told reporters in August that before he was sworn in as chief he saw brazen drug deals when driving through the city’s Tenderloin district — and the dealers did not seem worried about being caught. “People selling drugs during school hours…no young child should be subjected to that,” Gascon said.

Former NBA star and current Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson had his garment bag snatched outside a Union Square hotel as he helped an elderly man get into a cab. “The real crime was the vulnerability of it all,” Johnson wrote on his blog in October. “The idea that I could leave my bag on a crowded street, turn my back for 30 seconds and have my stuff stolen.”

Johnson’s items were found and later returned with a public apology from Newsom.

By increasing foot patrols and using other techniques such as rooftop surveillance, police say they recently have made progress against quality of life crimes Downtown.

Along the Market Street shopping corridor, police say loitering dipped by 71 percent, public drinking/selling alcohol to minors by 53 percent and drug dealing and sales by 23 percent last March through November, compared to the same period in 2008.

“It’s not the organized crime, but the disorganized crime that causes all of the problems,” said Lt. Joe Garrity, who heads the foot patrols in the area.

The crackdown is apparent at the Community Justice Center in the Tenderloin. More than 100 defendants a day pack a courtroom, hoping a judge will give them social services instead of jail time.

In the Haight-Ashbury, the community is divided over how to fight nuisance crimes.

Bruce Wolfe, vice president of the Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council, believes that with several city ordinances in the books, a sit-lie law would target not only “unruly thugs” but also harmless “down and outers.”

Wolfe said police should help his group create a neighborhood community policing plan, rather than rousting street people.

But Ted Loewenberg, president of the Haight Ashbury Improvement Association, said the neighborhood’s problems require a sit-lie law like one in Berkeley. “It’s frustrating and infuriating,” he said, of the current street climate.

Loewenberg said that his group is offering to pay $100 to the first 10 merchants who install surveillance cameras worth about $300 outside their businesses.

Four businesses have already agreed, Lowenberg said Saturday.

One recent weekday, several transients were pacing Haight Street with intimidating-looking dogs on chains, begging for money and congregating on corners.

“We like to sit here, maybe ask for a cigarette or some change,” said Brandon Hughes, 21, a self-proclaimed “Street Kid.” His group hurried off after police spotted them.

Kolberg calls the street kids, “Peter Pans. They are all stuck in puberty.”

Later, officers questioned a man from Texas squatting on a corner who told them he was recently arrested for drug dealing and a judge assigned him to a social worker.

Kristin Laursen, manager of a chocolate speciality shop, said the “disturbing scenes” multiply at night and on weekends.

“They still think it’s a ‘Hippie Heyday’ over here,” said Laursen, 32. “Hello? Not anymore.”

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