The big question at the police commission meeting Wednesday night was about two things most people do on a daily basis without much thought: sitting and lying down. The San Francisco Police Department is proposing an ordinance that would make it against the law for anyone to sit or lie on a public sidewalk between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m.
“It is unlawful to sit or lie on a public sidewalk,” reads the legislation introduced at the Board of Supervisors March 2 and assigned to the Public Safety Committee. It would not apply to the differently abled, mentally ill, or those in wheelchairs or strollers.
But Petra de Jesus, a lawyer and one of six police commissioners and the one who called the discussion-only hearing, was skeptical.
“With the new law, just the act of sitting is a criminal act?” she asked them. The police department officials could not answer with a clear yes or a no.
Commander James Dudley defended sit-lie, calling it an “organic proposal in response to dangerous and disruptive activity.” He spoke about the “thugs” who often occupy the sidewalk in the upper Haight neighborhood as the reason behind the ordinance.
But Police Chief George Gascon said the problem is “city-wide”
“It’s not the Haight only, by the way,” he said.
De Jesus was the only commissioner outspoken against the legislation. But the hearing room was packed with activists from Harvey Milk Club, Poor Magazine, the Homeless Youth Alliance, and the Coalition on Homelessness. The latter has taken a strong position against the ordinance since the beginning of the year. Representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights were also invited to speak during the hearing. Both oppose the ordinance.
ACLU legal director Alan Schlosser argued that the sit-lie ordinance would allow police officers to enforce it “not against tourists and middle class” but against “the bad people who someone says are causing problems.” In the process, he said, the proposal would criminalize all panhandlers.
A showing of around five Haight-district residents turned out to support the legislation.
Teresa Barrett, captain of Park Station, said community and merchant meetings in the upper Haight started to escalate last November when the neighborhood began going downhill, and small business owners grew afraid of “neighborhood thugs” with “aggressive dogs.” Many little stores, she said, were going out of business.
Gascon responded with the sit-lie proposal and Mayor Gavin Newsom introduced the legislation at last week’s Board of Supervisors’ meeting. An article in the San Francisco Chronicle in late February said Newsom had been unconvinced of sit-lie until he walked through the Haight with his daughter on a Saturday and saw “…a guy on the sidewalk smoking crack.”
De Jesus insisted that the issue of criminal activity should not be confused with the act of sitting. If the problem involves dangerous and disruptive activity, she argued, people should get arrested for the appropriate crimes, not for sitting or lying down.
“Hitting? We have a law. Spitting? We have a law. Threats? We have a law,” said De Jesus, repeating some of the community complaints relayed by the police officers. And if the problem is obstructing a sidewalk, she said, “we already have a municipal code.”
Section 22 of the municipal police code is “intended to be used when a person persists in willfully and substantially obstructing the free movement of another person in a public place.”
“Orders to move on” is another department policy that allows the police to do just that — as long as the officer has “probable cause to believe an offense has occurred.
But the police department insisted the existing law against sidewalk obstruction doesn’t work. It requires a victim complaint for police to look into whether there is unlawful obstruction going on, said Assistant Chief Kevin Cashman.
“Third parties are hesitant to get involved,” he said.
In addition, the person doing the obstructing has to be maliciously and intentionally getting in someone’s way.
But if the sit-lie ordinance passes, said Cashman, “an officer could take action by observing behavior.” The decision to move people a sidewalk would be totally at the discretion of the police officer.
De Jesus asked for statistics on arrests for obstruction under the current law but nobody from the police department knew of any. Cashman estimated that very few arrests are made, and maintained that few would be made under the sit-lie ordinance.
He said the department is not looking to arrest many more people, but would be targeting a small group with “troublesome behavior” who sit or lie on sidewalks, and intervening “before an accident or crime occurs.”
“We’re talking about that ten percent,” said Barrett. “That group that is trying to stake out their territory.”
Opponents say the ordinance screams police profiling of vulnerable populations. Schlosser from the ACLU called the proposal a step backwards and a descendant of vagrancy and loitering laws. The ACLU has been fighting sit-lie ordinances since the 1970s, when a similar law resulted in arrests of hippies and gay men. A lawsuit revoked that ordinance.
“This will lead to arbitrary enforcement,” he said. “This is a law that is criminalizing innocent conduct to expand police discretion.”
One of the complaints made by the police department about the obstruction law is that its “evidence requirements” make it difficult to prosecute. Schlosser responded, “Does the city want to adopt ordinances that will be easy to enforce because they don’t have evidence requirements?”
Laura Hurtado of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights said the sit-lie ordinance would negatively impact people of color. She said some of the other potential targets are girl scouts, street musicians, and day laborers.
“They say this law is about changing behavior,” said Hurtado. “I’m skeptical about this. This law is about the fears of the people that live in the Haight.” Like De Jesus, she added that the city should focus on identifying and fixing the problems with the existing law.
During public comment, Michael McAllister said his wife has begun using side streets to get to and from their home in the Haight.
“They try to put runs in women’s nylons, they trip you,” he said of some people on Haight Street.
Arthur Evans, a long-time San Francisco resident, said two gay men were walking on Haight Street and a drunken man spat in their face and said, “Faggot, I hope you die of AIDS.” Evans said most of the people who hang out on Haight Street are not native San Franciscans and come from other places in search of drugs.
But Colleen Rivecca of the Homeless Youth Alliance said many of the homeless kids she works with are fleeing unsafe situations and the proposed ordinance would only push them further into the margins of society.
Addressing concerns from the public about whether sit-lie ordinances have been successful in other cities, Police Chief George Gascon said, “It works.” Police officials said the ordinance is modeled after one in Seattle. Other cities with sit-lie laws include Las Vegas and Los Angeles.
“I think it’s premature and draconian and casts a wide net,” said De Jesus, and urged the police department to look into statistics rather than rely on anecdotes to create a law.