When it comes to dealing with violent crime in recent years, about the only thing the Police Department could count on was the inevitable series of negative headlines.
Homicides were up, case-clearance rates were down and the only consistent thread seemed to be the department’s inability to come to grips with it.
But the SFPD is changing and so are its statistics in reducing violent crimes. The City is bucking a national trend for most big cities — and for once, that’s actually a good thing.
Before Mayor Gavin Newsom went on his unexpected walkabout last week, he was planning to hold a news conference to discuss the Police Department’s crime prevention strategy that — stop the presses — is actually preventing crime. But he hasn’t been available, so I’ll have to do it for him.
A few years ago, the department hired some consultants from Harvard University to look at who was responsible for violent crimes in San Francisco. After crunching the numbers, they came back with a fairly stunning, if anecdotally obvious, conclusion: Nearly half of all violent crimes in The City took place in just a few neighborhoods: the Bayview, Mission, Western Addition, Visitacion Valley and Tenderloin.
Then came a possible solution: Flood those zones with scores of field officers and specialized units, like gang task force members and investigators. Focus on the bad guys. Be persistent and repeat, because it’s necessary.
“We had a road map and we stuck to it,” said Kevin Cashman, the deputy police chief who overseas the investigations bureau. “But it’s not just about being in the zones. Whenever we send an officer out, they’re sent with a specific mission. And the men and women in the department have done a tremendous job of focusing on high-risk offenders.”
And in this case, high risk means great rewards. At this time in 2007, San Francisco had recorded 89 homicides. Last year during the same time period, 93 people were killed.
And so far this year, there have been 42 homicides in The City.
But that’s not the only figure that stands out. For the same time period two years ago, The City had 255 nonfatal shootings. The figure dropped to 173 last year and in 2009 it stands at 160.
If you see a pattern here, there’s a reason. The number of people who have been shot has declined by almost 40 percent, and that’s in large part because those people who tend to engage in shootings are in jail, in prison or awaiting their day in court.
“Clearly, crime cycles are cyclical, but our law enforcement practices have had a big impact on the overall crime rate,” said Kevin Ryan, head of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice. “The strategy of the new police chief is to focus on high-risk offenders, gang members and others, and there’s no doubt that a group of individuals have been taken off the street that were responsible for a lot of the violent crimes.”
The drop in homicides also has allowed investigators and prosecutors to focus more aggressively on violent crimes, which explains why the number of homicide charges filed this year has doubled. Some wags down at the Hall of Justice say that’s because District Attorney Kamala Harris is running for state attorney general. All I can say is I hope she keeps running.
The crime reduction shows up in little details, but in a big way. The recent crackdown on drug dealing in the Tenderloin may have stirred a rash of news reports, but lost in the attention was the fact that a lot of those people nabbed in the sting operations were doing a lot more than dealing drugs. The same goes for a federal crackdown on MS-13 gang members.
“In terms of dealing with the Tenderloin, it turned one of our biggest liabilities into our biggest asset,” Cashman said. “A lot of the right people are in jail.”
Three years ago, I did a column outlining why so many people came to San Francisco to commit crimes — by the Police Department’s own estimate, almost one-third of all felonies committed here were by people who lived outside The City. And that’s because in places like Santa Clara, San Mateo and even in tiny Shasta County, law enforcement officials played hardball — three strikes and you’re out.
San Francisco is finally pitching in and the results have been dramatic. For a city where it seemed to those involved that you could get away with murder, there’s finally a little safety in numbers.
It may trigger a slew of stories when some supervisors start complaining about the money being spent on jail overcrowding.
But this is one of those rare times when we can point out where money is being well-spent.