A well-dressed red headed twenty-something slips a wad of bills into a woman’s hand at the intersection of Mission and 16th streets. From behind she looks to be his age but as she turns and signals to her boss for the product, you can see the years on her face.
No one on the crowded street raises an eyebrow as the tiny paper envelope is exchanged. The transaction is over in less than three seconds.
“Drugs are really the problem,” said Tobacco Plaza employee Noor Ali, “everything else, the robberies, prostitution, it all comes from the drugs.”
Ali added that she has noticed an increased police presence since the beginning of the year, when the San Francisco Police Department launched the 16th Street Quality of Life Improvement Effort. The effort is aimed at decreasing drug related crime and violence in the area.
“There have been problems in this area for a long time, and they’re not going to disappear overnight,” Mission Station Police Captain Tacchini said in a recent interview with Mission Loc@l.
Since the effort began, there have been four officers dedicated to the intersection, two on the street at all times, targeting drug activity and public drunkenness. Robbery, burglary and theft have dropped an average of 26 percent over the past year. However, none of the crime statistics released by the department have included drug arrests, making the impact of the effort unclear.
Juan Ramos, an employees at the Hip Hop Zone Clothing Store, said he’s noticed an improvement in the area, “It’s safe here, there’s problems like anywhere else, but it’s really gotten a lot better,” he said.
Others said little had changed.
“Sure you see more cops around, but it’s still the same old story,” said Moses Romero, who has worked as a security guard at Wells Fargo on 16th Street for the past seven years. “Last month this guy got beat down right here. I called 911 and the ambulance didn’t come for over a half hour. He was losing a lot of blood. Someone finally just put him in a car and drove him to the hospital.”
Alex Arman, who works at the $1 Only Store on 16th, agreed. “There are more cops, but that’s about it. It’s gonna take a lot to change things.”
Captain Tacchini, who recently referred to the intersection as “ground zero” in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, said that the department is also focusing efforts on 20th and Mission streets, 21st and Shotwell streets, and Garfield and Dolores parks. Officers, he said, have been making “scores of arrests.”
BART rider David Axle said he feels safe when he gets off the train, adding that he’s, “seen police in the area on several occasions.” A mobile command unit has been set up sporadically at the intersection to make police presence felt there.
Overall, the Mission District has seen a drastic reduction in serious violent crime over the past year, most notably in the gang injunction zone surrounding the 24th Street BART station. The district has no murders recorded this year, but violent crime such as aggravated assault has risen by 23 percent over the same time period.
Public records available on the CrimeMAPS website show there have been 151 drug arrests made in the quarter-mile area surrounding the 16th Street BART in the last three months. That compares to only 30 made in the injunction zone, which targets police identified gang members and is now heavily patrolled by foot police.
This has led some to speculate that crime has simply moved north to 16th street, and one resident wondered if ticketing street dealers would have any impact.
“These are the small fish down here,” he said, “the kingpins are up in their apartments. You can arrest every hustler on this corner, but until they go after the kingpins, more will just keep coming.”