In his first official community meeting as head of Mission Police Station, Captain William Griffin did most of the listening, reassuring neighbors that police are working alongside the city to address ongoing concerns about a swell of homeless encampments and prostitution in the district.
“I can’t tell you that in the two to three years that I’m here I can fix everything, but I can make things better,” Griffin told some 30 people who attended the Tuesday night meeting at the Valencia Street.
But residents who have long attended the meetings knew it would not be easy.
“He’s jumping into the Mission fire,” said one neighbor who is one of a group of residents from the Southeastern Mission who regularly attend the monthly police meetings to testify about soaring nuisance complaints and crime that they relate to homeless tent encampments in the area.
During the meeting that stretched well beyond its scheduled hour, Griffin yielded the floor to various city departments that have allied with police over addressing homelessness in the neighborhood and prostitution on Capp and Shotwell streets.
Also on hand to field the neighbors’ questions was Griffin’s current boss, former Mission Station Captain Daniel Perea, who is now commander of the district.
What ensued was a somewhat candid conversation about the police’s role in solving crime and its collaborations with other city agencies on addressing quality of life concerns.
“I hear you, but It isn’t all about the police department,” said Griffin. “There are other agencies involved.”
Sidewalks where encampments are located were described by attendees as strewn with needles and feces, but many expressed a more immediate concern about violence within the homeless communities living on their doorsteps.
One particular encampment, located at the intersection of 14th and Mission streets, has particularly problematic in the last month, according to residents.
“There was a pretty bloody stabbing there last Wednesday…The last that we heard there was going to be a resolution of that encampment,” said Andrew Presley, a resident of Natoma and 14th streets.
Presley said that he reached out to the Department on Homelessness and Supportive Housing inquiring about the encampments removal, but had not received a response.
Randy Quezada, a spokesperson for that department who was present at the meeting, had seen Presley’s email, but that his energy was focused elsewhere. The department, Quezada said, is intent on resolving encampments that are “the largest and have been around the longest and have a the most significant impact on the neighborhood.”
“Just because there isn’t a resolution plan in place for 14th and Mission today doesn’t mean that we are not doing anything,” said Quezada and pointed to their work at a large scale encampment at Carolina Street in Potrero Hill that resulted in 30 of its inhabitants transitioning to the Navigation Center.
Like others before him, Griffin said that he envisioned choreographing city services around a sustainable strategy for responding to encampments in the district.
Police will have a Community Outreach Division, he said, that will focus largely on encampment and homeless complaints, freeing up officers to focus on solving crimes.
“It doesn’t mean that we are out of the quality of life business at Mission Station – It means that we have the support of a group of officers and that’s what they do and are supposed to do,” he said. “It’s a consistency of service.”
It is unclear if that represents additional officers or reassigned officers.
Residents and business owners from Shotwell and Capp streets voiced their frustrations with an “ebb and flow” of prostitution in an area roughly spanning those streets between 18th and 22nd Streets that is once again at a high.
“We are just inundated with prostitutes,” said David Hall, co-owner of Shotwell’s bar at the corner of 20th and Shotwell streets.
Hall expressed frustration at a perceived lack of police intervention that he said has caused the sex workers to spread to Mission Street and South Van Ness Avenue. Perea said that their relocation is a result of police crackdowns in the area.
Last fall, Perea declared that his focus in addressing prostitution was on pursuing their clients on traffic violations. For a brief period of about a month, traffic control stops and an increased police presence in that area provided relief to neighbors by discouraging prostitution.
But those who want their neighborhood cleaned up said the sex workers have returned in full force and questioned the effectiveness of deterring customers.
Some wondered why “some 30 women” were left to operate in the area, seemingly unperturbed by police.
“Its obvious who the prostitutes are. It’s in your face,” said the Shotwell Street neighbor. “What is being done to address these girls?”
Perea, however, disagreed. “It’s not about appearance it’s not about people being in a certain area, it’s about conduct,” he said.
Griffin told the neighbors that he would look into continuing Perea’s recent efforts as well as the best practices of other stations and police departments in dealing with the issue, but that issuing citations wasn’t the answer.
“You can’t equate giving somebody a fix-it ticket for solving a crime,” he said. His primary focus would be on arresting pimps, but acknowledged “there are limitations to what we can do.“
Assistant District Attorney Justine Cephus explained that it is much easier to “catch women in stiletto heels barely wearing any clothing than her pimp who is circling and going to speed off in his car.”
Building a case against the latter requires witnesses – often the trafficked women themselves, to testify and can take years, she said. “ I have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that somebody is engaged in human trafficking, pimping, prostitution.”
Griffin asked the neighbors to give him some time to properly assess the situation before developing a strategy to address it.
“I’ll be out in your neighborhood tonight,” he promised.
Another Mission resident inquired about changes to the police department’s policy in regard to its cooperation with immigration agents.
“I’ve come here for the very first time to begin to understand if there are changes to enforcement or policy changes in SF that need to be made public,” the woman said.
Griffin said that there are no changes, and that he and his officers are aligned with the department’s continued commitment to the sanctuary city ordinance.
“There’s nobody in this community who should fear [reporting to] the police,” he said. “We serve all members of the community… as to their status, its irrelevant.”