Tenderloin Crackdown Sparks Backlash in San Francisco
Aggressive Tactics by New Police Chief Appear to Stem Rise in Crime,
but Draw Complaints About Crowded Courts, Jails


A police officer confronts homeless individuals in The Tenderloin
  Tenderloin Crackdown Sparks Backlash in San Francisco
Aggressive Tactics by New Police Chief Appear to Stem Rise in Crime,
but Draw Complaints About Crowded Courts, Jails

by Bobbie White

Wall Street Journal

April 8, 2010

San Francisco police chief George Gascon is aggressively targeting crime in the city's Tenderloin neighborhood. While the push appears to be having an impact on crime, some city officials and local residents are critical, saying the crackdown is flooding city courts and jails and taxing already-strained resources.

The backlash is rooted in Mr. Gascon's strategy. Since taking over the 2,300-member San Francisco Police Department last August, the police chief has increased crime sweeps in the Tenderloin and pursued alleged offenders for even petty infractions in order to make the neighborhood less attractive to drug dealers and other criminals.


Mr. Gascon has deployed units specialized in undercover narcotics busts and robberies to crisscross the 20-block neighborhood at alternating hours. The SFPD also has culled arrest information, like types of offenses and their location, to help plan crime campaigns in the area. The SFPD declined to say how much they had boosted their presence in the Tenderloin, citing security reasons.

Mr. Gascon, who headed the Mesa, Ariz., police department before joining the SFPD, says the criticism of his approach is unwarranted. "As crime decreases, I expect the criticism I confront to fall off," he says.

In contrast, previous police chiefs relied primarily on officer patrols to combat crime in the area, says a SFPD spokeswoman.

Mr. Gascon's strategy seems to be slowing growth in the Tenderloin's violent crime rate. Last month, the SFPD concluded a 21-day Tenderloin campaign that resulted in more than 200 arrests. Another sweep late last year yielded 302 arrests. Comprehensive conviction rates from the arrests aren't yet available, since the cases still are wending through the legal system. Overall, violent crime in the Tenderloin rose 1% to 176 reported incidents for the first three months of the year from the same period a year earlier, compared with a 7% rise in the city as a whole, according to SFPD figures.

San Francisco is the latest city to adopt the policing strategy of focusing on neighborhood hot spot and inundating them with law enforcement, a move championed by former New York City and Los Angeles police chief William Bratton. Mr. Bratton, who ended his stint as Los Angeles police chief last year and joined a private security firm, advocated what he termed a zero-tolerance policy toward petty and minor crimes combined with a reliance on crime statistics to guide policing.

Cities like Newark, N.J. and Providence, R.I., whose top brassólike Mr. Gasconóworked under Mr. Bratton also have adopted his methods. "Bill's approach has proven to be very successful over the years," says Mr. Gascon, 56 years old, who worked with Mr. Bratton in Los Angeles from 2003 until 2006.

Mr. Bratton says the Tenderloin has been "neglected for far too long. Chief Gascon is right to target this area, and he knew he would face controversy, which typically happens when you use this kind of enforcement."

Despite his successes, Mr. Gascon's approach is straining city resources at a time when state and local governments are cutting budgets and trimming costs such as jail stays. San Francisco's public defender and sheriff say the police chief's methods have flooded the city courthouse with hundreds of new cases, added many suspects charged with low-level crimes to jails and overwhelmed public defenders.

"This is a monumentally expensive program the police department has implemented, draining resources from all over the city," says Jeff Adachi, who heads San Francisco's Public Defender Office, which represents defendants who can't afford their own attorneys. Mr. Adachi, who is meeting with Mr. Gascon on Friday to discuss the police chief's strategy, says a wave of Tenderloin arrests in September caused a 35% jump in his office's number of cases, to more than 820 from 613 previously.

Mr. Gascon says his focus on the Tenderloin began last summer when he saw dealers selling drugs openly in the neighborhood. "There's no way I could let it continue," he says. The Tenderloin, wedged between Union Square and the Civic Center, for years has had a seedy reputation for its abundance of single-room-occupancy hotels, addiction-outreach programs and liquor stores and strip clubs. But in recent years, the area also has witnessed new development, with restaurants opening and older buildings converted into boutique hotels.

Some local leaders say they welcome Mr. Gascon's methods. "I don't agree with everything he says or does, but he has accomplished a lot of good," says Bevan Dufty, a member of San Francisco's Board of Supervisors who sits on the city's public-safety committee. "[Mr. Gascon] has taken a fresh look at longstanding problemsÖand so far got some pretty good results."

But critics like San Francisco Sheriff Michael Hennessey say the effort has burdened city resources.

Mr. Hennessey, who oversees the city's jails, says Mayor Gavin Newsom previously ordered him to reduce the jail population by expanding programs like home detention. But since Mr. Gascon's crime sweeps, Mr. Hennessey says he has had to open four jail housing units, at a cost of at least $500,000.

In addition, the crime campaigns are filling San Francisco's six county jails, which can accommodate some 2,400 inmates, to near capacity, says Mr. Hennessey, who in 2007 was elected to his eighth term. Mr. Gascon's September crime sweep caused the prison population to jump to about 2,100 inmates from about 1,800, above the average monthly prison population of 1,900, he says. That number has since fallen to 1,775 due to a scandal in the city's crime labs that has led to many cases being dropped.

Some Tenderloin residents also are bristling at Mr. Gascon's push. Elaine Zamora, district manager for the North of Market/Tenderloin Community Benefit Corp., a neighborhood improvement organization,says locking up dealers and addicts who then return to the streets a few days later is a waste of resources.

"Who doesn't want the streets safe, but the reality is this effort is unsustainable," says Ms. Zamora. Still, she says she has seen less drug dealing on some neighborhood corners since the sweeps began.

Mr. Gascon says he won't back down. "Don't ask me to not do my job because of budget cuts or a city agency [that] is short-staffed," he says. "This department has an obligation to stop criminal activity."


EDITOR'S NOTE: Among the LAPD brass to welcome Los Angeles Community Policing's launch in early 2002, then LAPD Commander George Gascon, who was born in Cuba, was a huge fan. His first question to me was "Do you have a Spanish version of the web site?" (We don't, mainly because its enough of a struggle to publish the ENGLISH version, especially when we have had no financial support from outside our own volunteers.)

Gascon eventually was named as one of Chief Bratton's original three Assistant Chiefs, which included Sharon Papa and Jim McDonnell. We include all three old friends now, and as some of the biggest supporters of our efforts at LACP. Chief Papa remains active at LAPD and Chief McDonnell now heads the Long Beach Police Department. We follow and applaud each of their advancing careers.

Here are a few more articles that feature the impact Chief George Gascon has had on San Francisco, written over the last few months. We wish him all the best.

Eddy and Taylor streets in the Tenderloin district
  SF police, new chief tackle quality of life crimes

February 27, 2010


Associated Press

San Francisco, CA

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.


S.F. police chief's first target: Tenderloin

By C.W. Nevius

September 5, 2009

In the old cowboy movies, the new sheriff used to ride into town and pick a fight with the meanest, toughest guy around. If he could handle him, everyone else would fall in line.
New Police Chief George Gascón is trying something similar. At his news conference earlier this week, he picked the Tenderloin, with its rampant drug dealing and crime, as his first cause.

"People are fed up," he said. "There are enough statutes in the books to clean out this area."

There's a reason no one has wanted to take on the Tenderloin. It's a mess. Resistance to change begins with passionate advocacy groups that see law enforcement efforts as a "war on poverty." Besides, with drugs becoming more prevalent, cheaper and accepted, drug enforcement has become a legal headache across the country. Better, critics say, to concentrate on problems that have a real solution.

Of course, looking the other way is how the Tenderloin became the Tenderloin. We've ignored this area for years, leaving it to sink under the weight of dealers and thugs. By picking his battle there, Gascón is going to find out who is going to stand with him. Public Defender Jeff Adachi is already complaining that Gascón's plan will clog the courts.

But of the 302 arrests made in the neighborhood since Aug. 13, 117 were on probation or parole. Surely those chronic offenders are worthy targets, even if cynics are telling the new chief that San Francisco doesn't care about crack dealers in a rundown neighborhood.

"I am not going to speak for the past," Gascón said when someone tried that line of logic. "Whatever it used to be, let's get used to the idea that it is no longer going to be that way."

The spate of arrests are the start. Next, I hear, he may be highlighting a few "poster kids" for the system, inviting the media to follow their cases from arrest to outcome.

That may explode some myths and confirm others. Sheriff Mike Hennessey says despite what you may have heard, there are beds in the County Jail, although he is already over budget for housing.

The district attorney's office is bound to come in for some tough questions. Cops complain the office won't charge any crimes unless they are slam-dunk winners. But insiders complain that the real problem is that prosecutors "overcharge," meaning that they run out a laundry list of charges that may not have the evidence to support them. The idea is to overwhelm the defendant and get him to plead down to a lesser charge. But sometimes the defense calls their bluff and charges are dismissed.

District Attorney Kamala Harris defends her office - and conviction rate- passionately.

"This isn't about finger-pointing," she said. "It is time we sent a loud signal to drug dealers."

That will move the spotlight to the courts. San Francisco has one of California's lowest rates of sentencing felons to state prison. In a study published in 2008 by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, San Francisco ranked 53rd out of 58 counties in number of felons sent to state prison.

While a case can be made that state prison has turned into a revolving door of its own, the numbers reflect a philosophical bent judges have toward lenient sentences. That's fine if San Francisco residents agree, but if they don't, it is time to step up and say so.

At Wednesday's news conference, U.S. Attorney Joe Russoniello called out local residents who complain about that terrible Tenderloin with all the shootings, drugs and crime.

"San Francisco is to blame that there is a Tenderloin," he said. "There has been a feeling that as long as it is not in our neighborhood everything is fine. The rest of San Francisco needs to be committed."

Your move, San Francisco.


One-on-one with SF's new police chief

September 23, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- It's been about two months since San Francisco's new police chief took office and he has not wasted any time chasing criminals. ABC7's Vic Lee spoke to Chief George Gascon in an exclusive wide ranging interview in which he made a surprise announcement.

"Basically what we do is increasingly we give up a significant piece of our city and say we throw our arms up and we can't do anything about it. And I refuse to do that!" says Chief Gascon.

Chief Gascon is talking about his war against crime in the Tenderloin. The first salvo was a 20-day operation in August. Police saturated the area making just over 300 arrests. A month later, most of them are still in jail.

"We've charged I believe in the order of 85 percent of the cases that have come to us," says Assistant District Attorney Brian Buckelew. "The cases are very strong."

Folks in the Tenderloin are taking note that there is a new chief in town. Abed Eid has been a store owner in the area for 28 years.

"It's been very quiet. I don't see many drug dealers like before," says Eid. "I really appreciate what the new chief is doing."

Undercover cops will ride Muni buses in the Ingleside District after a spike in robberies and violence. More than 40 officers will take part in the operation which targets bus lines with the most complaints.

"We need to be on the right lines at the right time of the day in order to make the impact that we want to have, which is to make every San Franciscan feel comfortable to use public transportation," says Chief Gascon.

Chief Gascon calls his style "smart policing." He'll be moving many inspectors from the Hall of Justice to the 10 police stations and he's installing a computerized crime tracking system called COMPSTAT, which he helped develop as assistant police chief in Los Angeles.

Gascon is also not afraid to talk about controversial topics. When asked if he believed there were cases in which the death penalty is appropriate, he replied, "Generally speaking, purely from a pragmatic approach to it, I would say that not, but I understand those that support it."

The new chief questions its effectiveness as a deterrent and the costs, time, and resources needed to carry out a death sentence.

"Many times there is that human nature that you want retribution and I get that. We also have to have a pragmatic approach to how we use the resources that we have available to us," he says.

His new job is not the only thing Chief Gascon is excited about. He told ABC7 that he is getting married in November to his fiance, an anchorwoman in Los Angeles.

"I'm excited. This has been an incredible year. I mean a new job, new residence, now I'm getting married, but it's very exciting," he says. "I think it will afford me the opportunity also to settle down and I think it's all good."



Leave community policing needs to capable Patrol Special Police

By Ann Grogan

Special to The Examiner

April 2, 2010

The City’s police chief and union representatives plan to cut employment to two-thirds time per officer and let attrition further reduce the department. That’s a good idea because SFPD policing is exceedingly costly and not needed other than for intensive law enforcement, undercover work and policing to prevent terrorism. It’s certainly not needed for community policing.

Community policing should be left to San Francisco’s chartered 162-year-old neighborhood police force, the Patrol Specials. They come free to the taxpayer because private businesses, residents and special-event organizers voluntarily pay for fast, responsive quality-of-life policing.

A survey of a significant number of Patrol Special clients was conducted last fall by San Jose State University. It found that clients believe the Patrol Specials are more responsive to normal types of daily public safety problems than city police. Patrol Specials are viewed as a “proactive rather than a reactive solution to the problem of crime.”

They found the Patrol Specials are a lot less expensive at an inclusive average rate of $48 per hour. That’s compared to the off-duty SFPD officer who bills an average rate of $87 per hour plus 22.6 percent added on as an administrative charge, and more if a patrol car is ordered.

In addition, if a private citizen hires an off-duty SFPD officer, the indirect cost exceeds $87 per hour not only because of future expensive pension obligations that accrue, but also because The City refuses to reimburse damage caused by the negligent actions of off-duty police.

True, the off-duty program does bring in some money to the SFPD budget. The Budget Analyst’s Office reported that in “fiscal year 1995-96, the Department collected $3,112,906 in Specialized Law Enforcement Services Program payments.”

Despite that, the off-duty SFPD program apparently has always been a losing proposition for The City. In 1996, the budget analyst found that “even though funds are intended to recover the entire cost of providing police coverage for a particular event, the actual cost ... is in many cases higher than the amount collected.” All that being the case, the police chief should immediately discontinue the SFPD off-duty program and quit wasting time and taxpayer dollars trying to teach his officers used to traditional policing how to do community policing.

City leaders should immediately get more Patrol Specials on the streets and available to willing neighborhoods and citizens, who should be encouraged to do more to share the cost burden of providing for some of their own public safety needs.

Ann Grogan has owned a small business for more than 20 years. She’s a client of the Patrol Special Police in Glen Park and occasionally consults with them on community education and media relations


Letters from our Readers: Patrol Special, SFPD can work in tandem

April 1, 2010

In this time of limited resources, I would urge police Chief George Gascón to meet with representatives of the Patrol Special Police toward possibly working in partnership with this organization to help address San Francisco’s safety needs. Patrol Special Police are the only private neighborhood policing service screened by background checks conducted by the S.F. Police Department, annually trained at the S.F. Police Academy and regulated by the Police Commission.

Patrol Special Police provide the only private safety service that is legally permitted to patrol The City’s streets and is on police-radio frequencies. They have been in existence since 1847 and are paid by private clients such as merchants, professionals, homeowners’ associations, residents, street-fair organizers and government agencies.

Patrol Special Police charge about $48 per hour as opposed to the off-duty police officer program, which charges up to $109 per hour.

Judi Iranyi, San Francisco