Grading the SFPD

by on October 8, 2019

Police crackdown on lower Turk eliminated this scene

Why Does the SFPD Get a Pass?

San Francisco is undergoing a crisis on its streets. It has drug dealers and users taking over sidewalks and mentally troubled people randomly threatening the public.

Is the San Francisco Police Department effectively responding? There is no clear way to know.

Neither the media nor public officials have questioned how the SFPD is carrying out its job. It’s allocation of resources, strategy, or personnel decisions have remained off limits (other than the SF Examiner story on new Deputy Chief Mike Redmond’s past hit and run, a critique that did not address whether his job performance justified his promotion).

It seems that alone among city agencies the SFPD avoids accountability (other then for shooting people of color). Consider:

*Former District Attorney George Gascon did not get such a pass; the four candidates running to replace him all blame him for problems on the street.

*The Health Department did not get a pass; the Board of Supervisors has issued blistering criticism of its handling of mental health problems.

*Ed Reiskin did not get a pass when SFMTA foundered. He was forced out.

DPW head Mohammed Nuru gets criticized for trash even though he’s widely considered the best in the business.  Championship basketball coach Steve Kerr got second-guessed during the Warriors Finals run in 2019.

In a culture of blame, the SFPD is the exception. It is assigned no responsibility for the untenable quality of life on city streets. And that’s a problem even if you believe the department is doing a fantastic job.

It’s a problem because the lack of public evaluation of the SFPD means that the public cannot assess whether its performance is “fantastic” or “needs to be improved.” The SF Chronicle’s Heather Knight has done great reporting on “city inaction” on street safety, but her stories have not led to public demands that the SFPD do a better job protecting residents.

The only “solution” I have heard is more officers. And the city may need them. But what if the real  problem is our lack of an effective anti-crime strategy? New York City showed how changes in police department strategies yielded historic crime reductions (and no, it was not from “broken windows” policing or “stop and frisk”).

But San Francisco has always followed its own approach, regardless of outcomes.

Radical Action Required

The Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which I head, has an office at 472 Turk Street which processes unhoused people moving into housing. We hires a 10 B 5 off-duty SFPD officer this week because last Monday a staff member was assaulted in front of our office. On Tuesday our staff was temporarily barred by drug dealers from even entering their front door.

This is happening in a 100% city-funded program to house homeless people.

These events are occurring nearly three years after former Mayor Lee said protecting the staff of agencies serving the unhoused must be a top city priority.

Next door to 472 Turk is 440 Turk, the future home of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing. The city pays a guard to monitor the long vacant site. My staff has photographed the guard  sleeping on the job. When they are awake they keep busy playing on their phone.

It would be great if the 440 Turk guard could protect HSH-funded THC employees next door but that isn’t happening. The Tenderloin Police Station is doing whatever it can to help my staff but cannot station an officer outside all day (I give an A- to the SFPD Tenderloin Station as it does the best it can with limited resources).

But what if Chief Scott shifted fifty officers from Southern, Richmond, and Sunset Stations to the Tenderloin, Mid-Market and Sixth Street for two weeks? I think it would make a big difference. Might even have permanent impacts.

It was precisely such out of the box thinking that eliminated years of intensive drug dealing on the first block of Turk (see photo above). Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that the idea came from Mayor Lee, who imposed it over then Chief Suhr’s objection.

If the SFPD has special strategies to address the current crisis they remain secret.

There is a lot of frustration over what is happening on the streets of San Francisco.  I know the Board of Supervisors gets criticized for wading into police practices but the current situation gives little choice. I would love to see Chief Scott questioned like the head of SFMTA, Planning, or HSH are routinely challenged.

The Supervisors should hold an all-day special hearing on the SFPD’s strategies and effectiveness. A hearing that takes testimony from experts on policing from outside the SFPD.

The city’s police response must get off auto-pilot. There is little evidence that the crisis is getting better and a lot it could get even worse. And I do not know anyone who believes that simply staying the course is the right approach.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. He describes the Tenderloin’s use as a drug containment zone in The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco.


Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw's latest book is Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America. He is the author of four prior books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. He is also the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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