Today at 11am at the Hall of Justice, representatives of San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood will present SFPD Chief Greg Suhr with over 1500 signatures—gathered in less than two weeks--- on a petition inviting him to tour the neighborhood and to then tell people if he finds its safety acceptable. Suhr has insisted that the Tenderloin has all the police it needs to address public drug dealing and crime, leading many to conclude he needs a first-hand view of the neighborhood (he can start on the first block of Turk, where violent crime has been 35 times higher than the citywide rate). Many also want Suhr to explain why the Tenderloin police force was cut double the city average (24% from 2010-13 vs. 12% citywide) despite higher crime in the area (Tenderloin police staffing is down 32% from 2009).

Since Tenderloin Captain Joe Garrity’s departure in early May, his trail of broken commitments has renewed questions over the SFPD’s allowing a neighborhood of over 4000 children to be overrun by out of area drug dealers. Now the Tenderloin community is saying “Enough!” Chief Suhr should either announce that the SFPD simply doesn’t care enough about Tenderloin safety to provide the necessary police, or give the community its fair share of officers to do the job.


The SFPD’s Cynical Game

The San Francisco Police Department is engaging in a cynical game of make-believe when it comes to the Tenderloin neighborhood. It allows drug dealers from outside the neighborhood to transform sidewalks into rent-free business establishments and conduct business with minimal police interference. It then assigns its Tenderloin Captains to build relationships with community stakeholders to avoid public criticism.

And this strategy has worked for two reasons.

First, Tenderloin police routinely blame the District Attorney’s office for ongoing drug dealing. Prosecutors are not in the community talking to crime victims and complainants, so the police blaming of the DA’s office goes unrefuted.

Second, if you work, live or own property in the Tenderloin, you do not want to alienate local officers by criticizing the department. This is true even when—as in the Tenderloin---the police are doing everything in their power but cannot overcome acute understaffing.

When people called former Captain Garrity about a crime problem, he got right on it. That’s one reason he was so popular--- he was great at putting out crime “fires” while making no secret of the fact that he lacked the officers to make a serious dent in the problem.

Garrity regularly said that “all stations have taken a 15% hit” but that wasn’t true. The Tenderloin’s police force took double the hit of the citywide average, even though crime levels warranted increases rather than reductions.

In other words, Tenderloin police staffing was cut more than at Taraval and other stations where there is far less crime (and the crowds of dealers on lower Turk or along Leavenworth would never be allowed for a single day anywhere in the Taraval, Sunset, Richmond, Pacific Heights, Noe Valley or any other homeowner neighborhood).

Why has Chief Suhr allowed the high-crime Tenderloin to be disproportionately impacted by officer cuts? That’s what over 1500 Tenderloin residents, business owners and workers want to know. They want Suhr to tour the Tenderloin so he can see what is really going on---as this should convince him to ensure the Tenderloin get its fair share of officers.

The Tenderloin had 101 officers in 2009, and it made a visible reduction in public drug dealing. Yet city officials complaining about rising jail and public defender costs caused the number of officers to decline to 91 in 2010, and in 2012-13 there were only 69 officers despite widespread visible drug dealing in the neighborhood.

The city made a decision to keep jail costs down by keeping Tenderloin drug dealers out on the sidewalks. That’s what known as balancing budgets on the backs of the poor.

The Tenderloin may well have suffered the greatest officer reductions of any district- despite many San Franciscans perceiving the Tenderloin as unsafe. We don’t know for sure because SFPD has not responded to repeated requests for district by district staffing reductions---it apparently will take a Supervisors hearing to get that information.

Being Honest About the Tenderloin

Since initiating the effort in 2007 that led to the Tenderloin becoming a National Historic District, I have chronicled dozens and dozens of neighborhood improvements. I have arguably offered the most optimistic view of the community’s future of anyone writing about the Tenderloin. I did so because I believed that after over forty years of neglect, forces were in place that would ensure low-income Tenderloin residents the same quality of life that most other San Franciscans take for granted.

But when the police refuse to commit the resources necessary to reduce Tenderloin crime, it's harder to promote optimism. And when a captain suddenly leaves after making commitments to a community anti-violence group only to have his successor say in a public forum last week that he “does not want his fingerprints on the {prior captain’s} program,” than it looks like the SFPD is playing the Tenderloin for fools.

Increased police alone cannot positively transform the Tenderloin; economic development must also occur. But for a city to single out one of its few remaining low-income neighborhoods for double cuts to police staffing should anger everyone in San Francisco, and we hope Chief Suhr also finds this unacceptable.

We will report on Suhr’s reaction to the Tenderloin delegation’s submission of petitions and invitation to tour the neighborhood in tomorrow’s Beyond Chron.