Murder in The City: the ugly truth 

The statistics, if you’ll pardon the expression, are arresting. They’re also convicting: Homicides in San Francisco, far from declining under enlightened law enforcement, have "skyrocketed to a decade high," to quote The Examiner’s investigative report published last Friday.

This will come as a shock to those who wanted to believe a New Year’s gloss-over from the Office of the Mayor, which disingenuously put out a story citing FBI figures that the murder rate in The City had come in under the nationwide trend for the year 2006. True, but previous years — enough to make reasonable comparisons — were omitted. When you massage numbers that way, you can make the gullible feel pretty good.

It’s not that we like bearing bad tidings, but the streets of San Francisco simply are less safe than they were three years ago when Mayor Gavin Newsom took office, not long thereafter appointing Heather Fong chief of police. In those promising days, the mayor even told voters on a radio program they could recall him if the homicide rate hadn’t dropped by, well, now.

We’re not ready to hold him to such a silly vow. But the facts stare us in the face: During the Newsom-Fong tenure thus far, San Francisco has averaged 90 murders a year as well as a homicide arrest rate of 25 percent.

Even during the freewheeling, "permissive" Mayor Willie Brown’s eight years, The City averaged 65 annual murders; the arrest rate was 49 percent. Whatever has changed is not working, and Mayor Newsom cannot blame the agonies on concentrated population, San Francisco residents having steadily fled.

The mayor and the Board of Supervisors regularly dispute proper crime-fighting techniques, mostly having to do with police foot patrols, surveillance cameras and civil injunctions against gang members. All ideas have merit but have been given little time to work. More advanced criminology should enter the public discourse. One example: The "broken window" theory, in which police officers target petty infractions, has dramatically reduced serious crimes in other urban settings. William Bratton made it work as New York City’s police commissioner. Now chief in Los Angeles, he could be consulted. Elements of his "community policing" are being introduced here.

We were struck by Newsom’s defense of Chief Fong’s administrative skills. One of her successes, we’re told, was the confiscation of 2,400 guns. Why then, it’s fair to ask, such a high murder rate?

Whereas the supervisors appropriately call for a thorough accounting of the Police Department, they should be cautioned against political micromanagement of The City’s crime fighters. On balance, Mayor Newsom’s friendlier approach to the job-creating business community can also translate into safer streets.

The Examiner invites public discussion.

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Staff Report

Staff Report

A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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