News & Views from 465 California Street

The Streets of San Francisco

Clint Reilly

While cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles – with huge populations and complex problems – report historic decreases in crime and murder rates, San Francisco faces a wave of senseless killings. San Francisco also continues to be plagued by an epidemic of homelessness and anti-social behavior on its streets that has long since disappeared from more seemingly ungovernable cities in America, Europe and Asia.

The problem is rooted in an archaic approach to law enforcement taken by Mayor Gavin Newsom and the San Francisco Police Department.

Newsom’s 2003 mayoral campaign heavily promoted the “Broken Windows” theory of law enforcement first implemented by William Bratton, the highly successful Police Chief of Los Angeles who restored order to New York City in the 1990’s. Newsom also loudly promised to appoint an outsider as police chief who was conversant with Bratton’s widely acclaimed tactics, which have become the “best practices” for managing a 21st-century law enforcement agency.

Under Bratton, both New York and Los Angeles have experienced dramatic drops in their crime rate and have greatly reduced problems like aggressive panhandling, street camps, overt drug pushing, defacing of public property, public urination and defecation. In his 2003 mayoral campaign, Newsom held numerous town halls on crime that detailed Bratton’s signature philosophy of law enforcement. The typical politician is a heavy proponent of “community policing” – putting police out on the streets where the blue uniform and black-and-white cars will deter crime. Bratton would respond that police mannequins don’t cut crime and using them to stand on corners is a terrible waste of talented police officers. The essence of Bratton’s strategy was incorporated in the Broken Windows theory coined by noted criminologist James Q. Wilson. Broken Windows argues that civic tolerance of small quality-of-life crimes and misdemeanors leads to an atmosphere of lawlessness that breeds major crimes. Conversely, by drawing the line against minor crime and anti-social public behavior, all levels of crime will be reduced. Bratton created a signature system called CompStat, which uses technology to track crimes and target criminals. Rather than automatically placing officers on the street, police officers are strategically deployed to prevent criminals from committing crimes before they happen.

After his election in 2003, Newsom swiftly appointed long-time SFPD insider Captain Heather Fong as Police Chief. An entire campaign promising best practices in law enforcement was discarded like a piece of Kleenex. The SFPD continues to ignore the tactics which recently enabled New York City Police Chief Raymond Kelly to report the lowest number of homicides in the city’s five boroughs since the figure was first recorded in 1963.

Over the four years since Newsom became Mayor, the very problems he campaigned against have worsened. Homeless encampments dot the financial district. It is not uncommon for campsites of 15 or 20 people to sleep and defecate in public areas where unaware citizens sit and eat food the next morning or afternoon. Market Street is a gauntlet of urine-infected sidewalks, dangerous criminals, panhandlers and various nefarious characters. The neighborhoods of the Western Addition, Bayview Hunters Point, Visitacion Valley and sections of the Mission District have become killing zones where police are bystanders to gangs and young gun-toting thugs who murder one another with impunity.

Bratton has proven that big city streets can be clean and safe. And although Newsom campaigned on the “best practices” pioneered by Bratton, as Mayor he has lacked the political courage to implement the very ideas he advocated as a candidate.

Gavin Newsom began his mayoralty playing basketball at a Hunters Point playground surrounded by African-American children. But it will take more than a photo-op to restore safety and dignity to San Francisco’s streets. As he begins a second term, Newsom should revisit his own campaign promises and pursue them with conviction. A great city’s future is at stake.

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