A community meeting held at Mission Police Station on Tuesday produced some answers and indicated progress on police’s efforts to combat prostitution in the Mission including an acknowledgement by the captain that two minors had been picked up and turned over to the proper authorities.
Police said they believe the two minors, picked up two weeks ago, were victims of human trafficking. Connecting the victims in such cases to services and places of safety is a priority for his team, said Lieutenant Carlos Gutierrez, who directs a unit focused on prostitution.
“The girls in San Francisco are considered victims. When they get arrested they get services offered,” said Gutierrez.
Past meetings have been notably more contentious with neighbors on Shotwell and Capp streets complaining for months about open prostitution.
While the community meetings were a monthly occurrence under his predecessor, newly instated Captain Bill Griffin has rescheduled the meetings to take place on the last Tuesday of every other month.
Along with reducing their frequency, Griffin also tweaked the meetings’ format. Instead of first briefing the some 20 attendees on district related issues, Griffin opened Tuesday’s meeting by yielding the floor to his constituents and often directing their questions to members of his staff specifically tasked with solving the issues they raised.
Several neighbors spoke out against what they called an “open air, organized crime corridor from 17th to 21st street, and from Folsom to Capp streets,” where prostitution is rampant.
“We all know and recognize that this is an imported crime problem that comes to a crime friendly zone – none of the players are from our neighborhood,” said a resident of the area who gave his name as Andy. “90 percent of the Johns drive in – they come to an area in your district where they know they can do these crimes.”
The man added that several neighbors had even considered hiring private security because they felt unsafe.
“Is there a plan that you are developing around that crime corridor?” a resident of Shotwell Street wanted to know.
Griffin described the police as data driven.
“One of the benefits of having us go out and do enforcement actions, it paints a snapshot for me of what’s going, what time it’s going on,” said Griffin.
Griffin established a Prostitution Abatement Operation in April to thwart activity on Capp and Shotwell streets, with a focus on deterring customers, or Johns.
“That area sees a disproportionate amount of the activity out there and I don’t like it,” he said.
Since its launch, the dedicated three-man unit has made some 124 arrests and issued some 135 citations, according to Gutierrez, who heads the unit. Two DUI checkpoints established in a two-month time frame have stopped some 725 people and led to 11 arrests, he said.
“I’m proud of the arrests that were made and the young women that we liberated from individuals,” said Griffin. “I think it’s a work in progress, I’m doing the best I can to identify when it is that I need to concentrate the enforcement action out there, who I need to concreate it on to create a culture that those individuals from out of town understand …that this is not a freezone.”
But making a case to arrest and prosecute pimps and customers, said Gutierrez, is difficult. Although some of the neighbors reported witnessing what they deemed as pimping in plain sight, police said that often, their their hands bound.
One attendee said that he has witnessed someone whom he perceived as a pimp listening to a police scanner inside of a car and then “whistle” as a signal for prostitutes on to disperse from the area.
“Is that probable cause?” the man wanted to know.
But Gutierrez said that such assessments don’t hold up in a court of law. “Listening to scanner is not a crime. Whistling is not a crime.”
“I have to work with the District Attorney’s office when it comes to these arrests,” said Gutierrez. “To arrest someone for pimping or prostitution, there have to be certain elements of a crime.
Still, in the last week alone, the operation has yielded 25 arrests, 20 citations, and 27 field interviews – which entail identifying a person, checking for warrants, and can come in the context of a citation or arrest – according to Gutierrez.
Despite the recent success of the ongoing abatement operation, Gutierrez said that arrests could increase with doubled resources.
“We could always use more resources,” said Gutierrez, who currently oversees two officers in the abatement operation.
Those neighbors long concerned with prostitution on their doorsteps said they were happy with the progress.
“I’m just really happy that there is a dedicated team to this issue,” said a resident of 19th and Shotwell streets. “I actually saw a squad car pull up and talk to a girl. That’s exactly what we [the neighbors] want.”
Another neighbor questioned the volume of arrests given the unit’s scarce staffing capacity.
“What you see here and what you’re hearing – is that there’s a lot of activity out there,” interjected Griffin. “But [the officers] are out there taking people on, stopping cars. The DUI checkpoints have helped a lot. They are ID-ing people that are out there and engaged in activity – that’s what helps us later on because we build these databases and we know who people are.”
The neighbors’ feedback, said Griffin, was crucial in quantifying the long term success of such operations.
“The question is how do we look at this in six months. Are you coming back to me and saying ‘hey..it’s having an impact,” said Griffin. “I want to hear from you.”
Griffin told the attendees that he has spent the past month focusing on the northern part of the district, which encompasses the Castro, assessing the area’s issues and meeting directly and at length with concerned residents and community groups. Next month, Griffin plans to shift his focus on the central and southern corridors of the neighborhood.
“If that’s where you’re at, this is your month to grab me … for an hour or however long it takes to tell me what’s bothering you,” he said.
The next community meeting will take place on the last Tuesday of July.