SF district attorney takes crime reduction into neighborhoods 

click to enlarge Frank Carrubba developed crimefighting strategies using data collection as a prosecutor in Gilroy. He now leads the Crime Strategies Unit in San Francisco. - MIKE KOOZMIN/THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • mike koozmin/the s.f. examiner
  • Frank Carrubba developed crimefighting strategies using data collection as a prosecutor in Gilroy. He now leads the Crime Strategies Unit in San Francisco.

An iconic San Francisco neighborhood is overrun on weekends by over-the-top drunks and hooligans, taking police resources away from areas that need them more.

A man dressed as an oversized Muppets character continually makes threatening and alarming comments to merchants and tourists alike.

A chronic alcoholic goes in and out of jail for misdemeanor public drunkenness.

A man is busted for burglarizing a parked car, only to find out later he may be responsible for almost all recent auto burglaries within the neighborhood.

How do authorities stop the revolving door of justice?

District Attorney George Gascón believes he and his office have the solution. It is called the Crime Strategies Unit.

The unit is the first of its kind in California (the only other one nationwide is in New York City), and it is described as a modern and innovative way to prosecute cases that otherwise might not make it to trial. It is also a way to enhance local law enforcement operations by working directly and closely with local police stations and the communities they serve.

SMALL TOWN TO BIG CITY

Led by former Santa Clara County prosecutor Frank Carrubba, the Crime Strategies Unit has neighborhood prosecutors set up in all San Francisco police stations and two data analysts at the Hall of Justice using predictive analysis, among other tools, to map crime data and trends throughout The City.

Gascón reached out to Carrubba after the South Bay prosecutor had some success with the strategy in Gilroy.

In many of those cases, Gilroy had been dealing with crimes mostly related to gangs, Carrubba said. But Carrubba said he was able to build a major case over an 18-month investigation using sophisticated technological tools and empirical data to indict 26 members of a gang on an 83-count indictment that he said virtually decimated the gang after the three-month grand jury process.

In an interview with The San Francisco Examiner, Carrubba said that in the past 200 years or so, almost all professions have adapted to the times. Yet criminal prosecution lags behind.

"With the exception of maybe a powdered wig, there is virtually no difference how we're doing our job now as we were doing it then," Carrubba said.

However, the crimes and people who commit them have progressed and "we have not matched that," he said.

EMBEDDED WITHIN THE COMMUNITY

New York City began using its Crime Strategies Unit about three years ago, Carrubba said, and he has met with officials there three times. What they were doing was using empirical data, similar to Carrubba's experience in Gilroy, and picking out larger trends.

However, what worked in a small city like Gilroy would not work as well in San Francisco, he said. That's where the neighborhood prosecutors come in.

Every police district has its own neighborhood prosecutor stationed there, Carrubba said, to learn everything they can about the communities served.

That information is taken back to Carrubba and the team decides how to proceed.

Gascón began the neighborhood prosecutors program in 2012, and under Carrubba, the program has expanded into the Crime Strategies Unit.

REACHING OUT TO SPECIALISTS

Carrubba likens a prosecutor's job to that of a general contractor. Once the team decides what the problem area is, they can then engage other "subcontractors" in the process (Public Health Department, Department of Public Works and City Attorney's Office, among others).

The unit takes the information it receives and devises a solution unique to each neighborhood or community.

Once all the information is gathered, the unit has two data analysts who look at it and determine if there are any trends or connections between incidents .

When someone fires a gun in The City, Carrubba said, police respond but rarely find any suspects. In a situation like that, looking at arrest records would not help prosecutors, Carrubba said.

But the Crime Strategies Unit can take data from ShotSpotter, which helps pinpoint the origin of gunfire, and look at calls for service, arrest data and recovered firearms within that area, and whether those firearms match any ballistic activity from previous arrests. This might produce a bigger picture of what is affecting the area.

But using data analysis is not just to build major cases and guarantee likely convictions, Carrubba said. Part of what the unit is designed to do is to use those tools to stamp out criminal or nuisance activity in a certain area that may be a drain on police resources.

ON BROADWAY

A little over a year ago, the Broadway corridor in North Beach was known to have overly rowdy, drunken and sometimes criminal behavior, Assistant District Attorney Marisa Rodriguez said. From late Fridays to early Sundays, police from all over The City would descend on the area to break up fights and round up people behaving badly.

The violence culminated one night in February in a brawl involving more than 100 people.

When Rodriguez, the neighborhood prosecutor, came to the scene, she said such behavior was the most common complaint from residents.

But in addition to rowdy, drunken behavior, the community was dealing with shootings, prostitution and other quality-of-life crimes, Rodriguez said.

She reached out to then-Supervisor David Chiu, who represented the area, and former Central Police Station Capt. Garret Tom and others in the community to find solutions.

Soon, a community benefit district and protocols for security were established.

For instance, one of the problems in the area were the party buses that brought in drunken revelers, many of whom ended up drinking more in Broadway businesses.

The community worked with nightclubs in the area to register party buses with police and agree to certain drop-off points and times.

Those and other efforts helped decrease service calls to police by 50 percent, Rodriguez said.

In a case like this, the neighborhood prosecutor was not seeking prosecutions, but instead helping the community come together to address a common problem.

And it apparently worked.

Joe Carouba, a property owner in the area and owner of BSC Management, which contracts with several of the adult-entertainment clubs in the area, said Rodriguez was an integral part of the change.

"I don't think we would have accomplished what we did in terms of the safety and security of Broadway" without her involvement, Carouba said.

Stephanie Greenburg, board president of the Top of Broadway Community Benefit District, echoed Carouba's comments.

"Marisa successfully organized a complex group of individuals, with diverse interests and experience, into a highly productive working group," Greenburg said via email.

NOT A FUN CHARACTER

By now, many are familiar with the story of Daniel Sandler, aka Evil Elmo.

Besides haunting Fisherman's Wharf in 2012 and then again this past summer, Sandler has been spotted in New York, Los Angeles and Hawaii dressed as the "Sesame Street" character Elmo. He poses with tourists and families with children in the hopes of getting tipped.

If Sandler is not tipped, he is usually very vocal and aggressive.

When Sandler showed up back at Fisherman's Wharf this past summer, he did not waste time getting back to business.

And that did not sit well with tourists or merchants.

Sandler reportedly continued his aggressive behavior, falsely claimed to work for Fisherman's Wharf businesses, and intimidated merchants, employees and tourists with often racist rants.

When police were called, there was generally little to hang on Sandler. Often, he would be encouraged to leave the area but would return soon after officers left.

It was like "death by a thousand cuts," neighborhood prosecutor Karen Catalona said.

When Catalona started working in the area, Sandler was everyone's top issue.

They thought he was a "bully" more than an annoyance, she said, "and the way he was affecting people wasn't funny."

But since police had little recourse, a new strategy was needed.

With help from Catalona, the community benefit district for the Wharf and others set up a template of a report that could document all the individual complaints against Sandler. She asked for witnesses who would testify if a misdemeanor nuisance charge was brought against him.

In the end, Sandler put himself in hot water when on Oct. 24 he allegedly threatened to rip a woman's throat out. He now faces a felony charge and three misdemeanors.

However, the case Catalona was building would have had him in court the following week to answer for three misdemeanor counts of public nuisance.

Sandler is currently out on bail and a restraining order prevents him from being at the Wharf.

Merchants and employees in the area are relieved that he is gone.

Troy Campbell, executive director of the Fisherman's Wharf Community Benefit District, said that when Catalona got involved it "was definitely a turning point."

THINK DIFFERENT

For Gascón, the neighborhood prosecutors and the Crime Strategies Unit are "a model I've been trying to make stick for a while."

"We started doing this in L.A. in 1989," he said of his time with the Los Angeles Police Department. "I knew how this could work."

Gascón even tried to get something similar started when he was police chief in Mesa, Ariz. Coming from a policing background, Gascón said the District Attorney's Office shares a responsibility with the police to set up a safer community and the Crime Strategies Unit takes that first step.

At first, there was some pushback from City Hall on taking prosecutors out of the Hall of Justice and as to whether the office should receive funding for the unit. But Gascón said the model has actually decreased prosecutors' workload and emphasizes more sustainable public safety.

Gascón said this model is the next generation of law enforcement and that he would like the unit to grow to the point where it uses nontraditional processing for large data sets, which has helped federal investigators who have been targeting sex trafficking cases nationwide.

If things go Gascón's way, the powdered wig will not be the only thing left in the past.

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