San Francisco’s economy is booming. But many are upset about crime. This is particularly true in the Tenderloin, where residents, merchants, workers, and thousands of children confront public drug dealing on a daily basis.
Why does the city allow such flagrantly illegal activities? After all, the Tenderloin is finally bouncing back from fifty years of decline and there are rising expectations for its future.
It used to be that the Tenderloin attracted drug dealers because the city allowed them to do business there. It was a crime “containment zone,” with the entire criminal justice system backing a policy which forced low-income residents to walk down unsafe streets. When former police Chief George Gascon (now the SF District Attorney) cracked down on Tenderloin drug dealing in the fall of 2009, the sheriff and public defender publicly complained about the volume of arrests. Gascon then felt compelled to allow open Tenderloin drug dealing to resume.
Mayor Ed Lee made it clear after taking office that the Tenderloin’s days as a crime containment zone were over. And his intervention, along with resident activism, resulted in the biggest positive transformation of any single block in San Francisco. This was through the elimination of over 100 drug dealers who used to work daily on the first block of Turk Street.
But other neighborhood problems remain. The “hot spot” policing strategy that transformed lower Turk could be used elsewhere in the Tenderloin, but it requires a short-term infusion of additional officers. This increase has not occurred due to inadequate police citywide and Chief Suhr’s reluctance to boost Tenderloin policing out of the existing supply.
An Historic Opportunity
An historic opportunity now presents itself to alter the status quo and meaningfully reduce public drug dealing in the Tenderloin.
On January 28 at 6pm at the Kelly Cullen Community Center at 220 Golden Gate, the Police Commission holds a hearing on proposed new boundaries for the Tenderloin police district. The Police Commission faces a choice between two very different visions for the Tenderloin’s future.
In the vision backed by nearly all residents, merchants, workers and community stakeholders, the new boundaries will keep the Tenderloin together and target police resources where public drug dealing regularly occurs.
In the vision embodied in the SFPD’s proposal, the national Uptown Tenderloin Historic District is divided among three police districts. It takes historic Tenderloin SROs like the Hotel Union at 811 Geary, the Hartland Hotel at 909 Geary, and the nearby Elk Hotel at 670 Eddy, and puts them outside the Tenderloin police district.
At the same time that core blocks in the Tenderloin are excluded from the “Tenderloin” station, the new district adds shoplifting-heavy Westfield Cente. It is located at 5th and Market, well outside the Tenderloin. The new “Tenderloin” station includes Market Street as far down as 3rd Street and continues to Market and Van Ness before heading south as far as the intersection of Mission and South Van Ness.
In other words, to create a super- Tenderloin police district, core Tenderloin blocks have been excluded so that non-Tenderloin areas that include few residents but many out of neighborhood customers can be covered.
Critics of the SFPD plan understand that it is only a draft, and that the January 28 hearing is designed for public feedback. That’s why the importance of sending a strong message at the hearing about keeping the Tenderloin together cannot be underestimated.
Because Tenderloin folks (myself included) were not paying attention in 2007, we allowed Little Saigon (Larkin from Eddy to O’Farrell) to be excluded from the Tenderloin district boundaries drawn that year. We also allowed such non-Tenderloin areas as Macy’s, Neiman Marcus and other Union Square stores to be included as part of the Tenderloin police responsibility.
Residents and business owners on Larkin, Geary and other Tenderloin blocks trying to report crime problems to distant Northern and Central Stations have paid a steep price for the flawed 2007 boundaries. Those who care about the Tenderloin’s future do not want this to happen again.
An Historic Lack of Resources
Other than during Gascon’s early tenure as Police Chief, the core blocks of the Tenderloin have long had too few police. The new boundaries will either remedy this injustice, or perpetuate it.
If Westfield Center joins the still under construction Market Street Place in the Tenderloin District, the crime priorities of Abercrombie & Fitch, Nordstrom’s and J Crew will prevail over drug dealing on Leavenworth Street. Police will not ignore powerful retail interests whose sales taxes fuel the economy in order to protect seniors and kids walking on Leavenworth Street from drug dealing.
No police chief is going to throw big national retail chains under the bus by refusing to allocate police to arrest shoplifters. The new Tenderloin station will have enough on its plate with Market Street Place, while Westfield needs to stay in Southern Station.
If we were allocating police resources from scratch, logic says that those blocks of the historic Tenderloin that suffer from ongoing drug dealing would get enough police. But because each police budget builds on a foundation of inadequate Tenderloin police staffing, the city is failing to direct sufficient police to the parts of the city that need it most.
The police redistricting process gives San Francisco a once a decade opportunity to correct past mistakes. Tenderloin residents and a sympathetic mayor have made tremendous progress in improving neighborhood safety in recent years; it is now up to the Police Commission and Chief Suhr to do their part to advance the Tenderloin’s revival.
Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. His book, The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco, will be out this spring.Mid-Market / Tenderloin