San Francisco arrest rate fails to keep pace with homicide increase 

Since Mayor Gavin Newsom took office and appointed police Chief Heather Fong, the number of homicides in San Francisco has skyrocketed to a decade high, while the percentage of arrests for homicides has dwindled.

In the three years since Newsom became mayor in January 2004 and named Fong as San Francisco’s top police officer, The City has averaged 90 homicides and 23.5 homicide arrests per year — anarrest rate of 25 percent, according to information provided to the California Department of Justice by the San Francisco Police Department.

That contrasts with an average annual homicide rate of 65 during former Mayor Willie Brown’s previous eight-year tenure, in which Fred Lau served as police chief for six years. During Lau’s tenure as chief, the average number of homicide arrests made was 32 — a 49 percent arrest rate.

Newsom and Fong recently touted FBI statistics that illustrated a spike in homicide and violent crime in cities nationwide at the end of 2006, declaring that San Francisco’s decrease in homicides from 2005 bucked that trend.

San Francisco experienced 85 homicides in 2006, down from the 96 in 2005 and the 88 in 2004. However, Newsom and Fong failed to acknowledge that in the year prior to 2004, The City experienced 69 homicides and that the average number of homicides between 1996 and 2003 was 65 and the average number of arrests was 30 — seven higher than during their tenure.

Mayoral spokesman Peter Ragone said Thursday that Newsom and Fong did not "tout" the statistics, adding that it "sadly mischaracterized the administration’s position on the drop in homicides in San Francisco in the year 2006. What we have said repeatedly, what the police chief, mayor and all members of The City family have said, is that progress has been made and we have much progress left to make."

Neither Newsom nor Fong responded directly to questions, answering instead through press officers. The Police Department’s arrest rate per homicide has also steadily declined, bottoming out as homicides climbed in 2004 and 2005. Arrests per homicide averaged 47 percent from 1996 to 2003 but dropped to 23.5 percent for 2004 through 2005.

"We’re doing everything we can to stem homicides," police spokesman Sgt. Neville Gittens said. "This has been an ongoing effort since 2003. It’s a work in progress. It continues to be readjusted and re-evaluated as we go. In 2003, there was a high percentage of black-on-black gang homicides. We focused on those and reduced them by 50 percent."

In January, San Francisco police Deputy Chief Morris Tabak, who heads the investigations bureau, stated publicly that the department was successfully using a crime-fighting approach of targeting high-crime and high-homicide neighborhoods, including the Bayview, Western Addition and Mission districts.

But since 2003, homicide rates in those districts have remained relatively constant or have increased. However, rates have fallen in other neighborhoods.

The Bayview district has experienced the highest percentage of the 269 homicides during the last three years — 30 percent. The district saw 29 killings in 2004, 24 in 2005 and 28 in 2006. In the Mission district, 12 homicides took place in 2005 and 2006, compared with four in 2004. In the Northern Police District, which covers the Western Addition, homicides have jumped 220 percent — from five in 2004 to 16 in 2006.

"Could it be that if they (the Police Department) did not deploy resources where the community asked for them because of an increased need for public safety, that the numbers could have been far worse?" Ragone said.

The Ingleside Police District, which saw 22 homicides in 2004, ended 2005 with 11 homicides and 2006 with 10. In 2005, federal prosecutors won an indictment of 12 members of the so-called Down Below gang, which operated in the Sunnydale housing projects in Ingleside. Homicide Lt. John Murphy said this week that that indictment played a large role in reducing homicides in the Sunnydale projects.

In the Taraval Police District, which covers the Sunset and Parkside neighborhoods, homicides fell consistently, from 13 in 2004 to six in 2005 and four in 2006.

"It (the homicide rate) went up, but it also went down to a three-year low. The strategies we used to effect this change were started and talked about in 2003," Gittens said, adding that the department has implemented a "target-specific" strategy focusing on a few of the toughest repeat violent offenders.

While homicides have climbed, The City did experience a drop in violent crimes from 1996 to 2005, according to CADOJ. As many as 5,565 robberies were logged in 1996, compared with 3,097 in 2005. While 7,168 burglaries were committed in 1996, 6,309 were reported in 2005 — although burglaries have been on the increase since the 2001 low of 4,298.

Moreover, statistics provided to the FBI comparing violent crime for the first half of 2005 to the first half of 2006 show a distinct increase — with an additional 554 being committed from year to year. Robberies were up by 37 percent and aggravated assaults by 2 percent.

As the homicide rate increased, police officials pointed to the lack of staffing, stating that staffing levels were at an all-time low and calling for increases in the department’s overtime budget. From fiscal year 2002-03 to 2003-04, the department lost 72 full-time officers and cut almost $5 million from the overtime budget, resulting in more than 195,000 fewer overtime hours. From fiscal year 2003-04 to 2004-05, an additional 48 officers were lost. Since then, 45 officers have been added back on the force, $5 million in overtime was restored in fiscal year 2006-07 with only 72,000 less overtime hours than fiscal year 2002-03.

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