Tenderloin Crackdown Sparks Backlash

Bobby White
Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
Apr 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.

Eddy and Taylor streets in the Tenderloin district - San Francisco (Peter McCollough for The Wall Street Journal)

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 brass—like Mr. Gascon—worked 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 problems…and 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."