Community policing at the heart of transformation at SF’s Alice Griffith Apartments

SFPD Officer Jesse Ortiz (right) has come to intimately know the Alice Griffith Apartments for more than a decade. Both he and Le'shall Wallace (left), a longtime resident, have watched the community evolve, especially in recent years as the developments have undergone serious housing and community transformation. Photo by Bo Kovitz.

Covering the Police is a collaboration with UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Ten years ago, Le’shall Wallace wouldn’t dare let a police officer into her home.

A mother of five, Wallace struggled with substance abuse — and an abusive husband who almost took her life on several occasions.

San Francisco police officers who patrolled Alice Griffith Apartments in the Bayview, including Officer Jesse Ortiz, would knock on her door, asking if she was OK. She would shoo them away.

Ten years later, Wallace, 42, is celebrating nearly eight years of sobriety, lives in a clean and modern new apartment in a once violent and now quiet neighborhood, and can call Ortiz a close family friend.

As San Francisco begins to incorporate more foot patrols and other aspects of community policing, the SFPD’s housing officers provide a model for how essential it is for an officer in the community to have a consistent presence.

An officer the neighborhood really knows and likes can improve security and well-being.

“I’ve beaten the odds,” Wallace said. “I’m a survivor. I owe a lot of it to Ortiz, who’s always been here for me.”

Ortiz has been one of the neighborhood’s housing officers since 2008. When Ortiz walks through the streets, residents come up hug him, talk with him and call him by his first name. He’s family.

While Ortiz has been at Alice Griffith the longest, many of the housing officers there cycle through for two or three years. Even that length of time can be challenging for residents, according to Isaac Dozier, regional vice president of Urban Strategies, which provides supportive services for Alice Griffith.

“Continuity is important,” Dozier said. “People here got to feel like they’re family.”

Ortiz has only been in the neighborhood as long as he has because he’s volunteered to stay.

The Bayview police district currently dispatches four officers to each of the three public housing sites in the community, all directly interacting with residents to address their needs. At Alice Griffith, Ortiz’s three colleagues have each been there for at least two years and work 12-hour shifts. Dozier joked that the officers feel like they live at Alice Griffith more than they do at their own homes.

Nowadays, these officers are helping residents transition into newer quarters as Alice Griffith undergoes a total transformation. The community, which sits near the waterfront in Candlestick Point, holds 256 units of public housing that are in the process of being renovated. And it will soon become home to an additional 246 new units of mixed-income housing.

“The change is beyond physical,” Dozier said of the brightly colored buildings that luster in the sunlight, compared to the many old units down the block, all boarded up, dilapidated and still cratered with bullet holes. “This is just a physical manifestation of real, deep community building.”

Many of the African Americans still in San Francisco live in subsidized housing and public housing, according to David Sobel, CEO of the San Francisco Housing Development Corporation, a Bayview-based nonprofit involved with renovating other public housing sites in the area.

Bayview-Hunters Point has an estimated 28 percent of the city’s public housing developments, Bayview Officer Raj Vaswani said at a recent community meeting. It also has about 22 percent of the city’s black population, making it the highest percentage of African Americans in a San Francisco neighborhood, according to data from the 2010 U.S. census.

Weaving law enforcement into the “fabric of the neighborhood,” Dozier said, is done in part to improve public safety. SFPD Commander Ann Mannix said that housing officers who work in five of the city’s police districts — Bayview, Mission, Ingleside, Central and Northern — are uniquely able to form relationships with the community that help the police better do their jobs.

“Crime-solving is easier when we maintain close bonds and close relationships with our community,” Mannix said.

While always a part of the community at Alice Griffith, the presence of housing officers alone could not remedy the amount of crime that occurred in the complex in the years leading up to the neighborhood overhaul.

In 2011, Alice Griffith had 52 Part 1 crimes — which include aggravated assault, arson, burglary, homicide, larceny and theft, robbery, sex offenses and vehicle theft, according to data from SFPD. The majority of the incidents were aggravated assault, burglary and larceny or theft.

But so far this year, as residents move into the new units and begin a new chapter in their lives, there have been a total of six Part 1 crime incidents, according to the same data.

“It’s much more calm here,” said Wallace, who added she feels more safe knowing Ortiz is still in her neighborhood. “When I don’t see him around, I start to get worried.”

“But it wasn’t always that way,” Ortiz pointed out.

During the first few years Ortiz worked at Alice Griffith, neighborhood rivalries were so explosive that there were massive brawls and shootings in broad daylight, Ortiz remembered.

“And people didn’t want to talk when I came in,” he said. “But I kept coming back. I mean, I could have given up on them early on, but I kept giving them respect, talking to them.”

Ortiz said that housing officers have been doing community policing in Bayview for more than a decade. Agreeing with Ortiz and Dozier, Mannix said that continuity forms the groundwork for true community policing. Residents should really know their officer.

Police Chief Bill Scott announced earlier this month that he would increase a foot-patrol presence in the Mission, Central, Park, Taraval and Ingleside police districts. Vaswani told Bayview residents that he plans to double foot-patrols there by November.

“Housing officers are doing patrols, too, of course, but they’re doing so much more than that,” said Rose Marie Dennis, spokesperson for the San Francisco Housing Authority, which is helping oversee the transformation of the city’s public housing. “We view housing officers as a partner in communicating with developments. They’re like community ambassadors.”

As several police districts focus on adding more foot-patrols, housing officers at Alice Griffith have become increasingly involved in community-building programs under the new revitalization project, whether it’s providing career services or empowering youth who have committed crimes on the blocks. They, as Dozier said, are part of the transformation of lives.

Ortiz, for example, envisioned and launched the Seeds of Success, or SOS, program — a partnership with SFPD, the District Attorney’s Office and community-based organizations — to educate Bayview kids. The class, which meets every month at the Bayview police station, culminates in a trip to the nation’s capital.

Dozier said it is important to build trust between Bayview’s youth and “people in the judicial system who have been seen as trying to lock those kids up.”

“These kids need to know there are opportunities out there beyond what they’ve known on these streets,” Ortiz said.

At Alice Griffith, a couple hundred families who lived in the old public housing units across the street have already moved in, with the remaining residents predicted to move in within the next year.

Dozier said there are specific public safety challenges he and the housing officers are preparing for as the transition continues, including improved lighting and supervision in parts of the old grounds next door that await demolition and remodeling.

And many of the long-term residents there will soon share the space with complete newcomers from different socioeconomic brackets. The redevelopment at Alice Griffith is designed to be a mixed-income community.

“There are people here with history, people who are so resilient, who faced the threat of getting shot every day, who did whatever they could to make it,” Dozier said. “And then there will be new people coming in who haven’t really had to face those fears to the same degree.”

Housing officers, Dozier added, will help bridge those communities and navigate what he called “subcultural” differences between residents.

“So much of my job now entails getting to know these new folks,” Ortiz said. “The relationships I’ve built before in this community took years. I feel like I’m starting my job all over again.”

A SFPD patrol car strolls through the old Alice Griffith units that are yet to be demolished and rebuilt. Many of the residents have already resettled, but there are several families who still reside in the units. Photo by Bo Kovitz.

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One Comment

  1. Mark Rabine

    It would be good to hear from more residents and how they feel about the police presence in their neighborhoods. And what about community activists like the Mario Woods Coalition

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