In response to an outcry from residents, San Francisco’s Special Victims Unit and the Mission District’s police captain on Monday promised that enforcement is coming soon to Capp Street, a place known for sex workers.
Mission Station Captain Gavin McEachern acknowledged during the virtual call Monday, with the Central Mission Neighbors organization and District Attorney Brooke Jenkins, that, for the most part, the police department has not enforced sex-work-related offenses over the past two years in the Mission District.
“We do think there has been a hiatus of enforcement for a period of time, and we’re looking forward to changing that dynamic,” said McEachern.
That dynamic on Capp Street near 20th Street has gotten particularly difficult to live with, neighbors said.
Residents shared stories of violent fights, guests being propositioned by drivers cruising Capp Street, and hearing women begging to go home. The latter had people convinced that some sex workers were there against their will.
After the meeting, one 36-year-old resident of 20th and Capp streets, who preferred to remain anonymous, told Mission Local that sex work had always been around, but had never really posed a problem over the eight years he’s lived there.
In the past six months, however, the activity has grown dramatically: He said he sees as many as 20 sex workers on his block at a given time. Groups of men hanging out in cars at his corner have also recently appeared, and frequent, loud altercations are heard.
The resident suggested that the traffic diversion on Mission Street, and Shotwell’s Slow Street status, has sent car traffic to the 20th and Capp Street intersection, and may have brought more sex workers there.
Shotwell, which he said historically saw as much activity as Capp Street, is now quiet.
Special Victims Unit Sergeant-Inspector Tony Flores said during the virtual meeting that he had just gotten approval for a citywide operation order to begin enforcement, with a focus on Capp Street.
“So, let the games begin,” Flores said.
Flores said he intends to focus on cutting the demand for sex work, and offering services to sex workers, acknowledging that the activity may just shift to a different location. Those soliciting sex workers may be sent to programs or classes as part of the terms of their citation.
“I’m going to try to make it uncomfortable for those people that go out there,” Flores said.
The resident who asked for anonymity said enforcement has been non-existent when it comes to sex work on his block. He was stunned to learn that, in the midst of all the activity happening one night, his neighbor, a Latina resident of 35 years, was pulled over and questioned for a broken tail light outside her own garage when she went out to get asthma medication.
Some at the meeting suggested legalizing sex work and moving it to a non-residential area.
“Why wouldn’t the city legalize prostitution, if they’re allowing it anyway?” asked one resident on Monday evening. “You’re going to be protecting the girls. You’re going to be able to get them services, and you’re going to be protecting the neighbors.”
Legalization was not discussed by the officials present on Monday. But on Tuesday, Supervisor Hillary Ronen told Mission Local that managing the safety of residents on Capp Street, where sex workers have worked for years, and that of the sex workers is a “balancing act that we’re constantly trying to get right.”
Increased police presence “will help in the short term, but it doesn’t fundamentally change the situation in the long term,” Ronen said in an interview, “which is why we need to ultimately legalize this industry and regulate it to keep people safe.”
For now, however, Monday’s community meeting suggested that the SFPD will focus on enforcement — though its members complained that new laws make their work more difficult. Senate Bill 357 will decriminalize “loitering with the intent to engage in prostitution” starting in January, 2023. In 2019, this has been the sex-work-related infraction most frequently enforced by police in the Mission, according to the SFPD’s incident data.
McEachern expressed distaste for SB 357 and the ongoing discussion of banning pretextual traffic stops as hampering police efforts to combat sex work. He and his fellow law enforcement officials were quick to place blame on former District Attorney Chesa Boudin.
Flores noted that there had been one “test run” enforcement effort last year on Capp Street, but said that “all those cases were dismissed [by the former DA]. We did exactly what needed to be done. Let’s call it what it is: New coach, new approach.”
When asked why the former DA’s office dismissed the cases, Flores said: “They didn’t like them.”
Jenkins, who said she walked around Capp Street on Saturday night to see the situation firsthand with one of the residents at Monday’s meeting, promised not to overlook the Mission District. She said on Monday that her ability to charge cases depends on the police department presenting cases to her office, but assured the residents listening that her administration’s close relationship and open communication with the police department would bring change as compared to her predecessor’s.
But from the data available, it isn’t clear whether the previous DA can be blamed for low enforcement. Far fewer arrests and citations were brought by the SFPD in 2021 than in 2019 — under former DA Chesa Boudin and his predecessor George Gascon, respectively — but the rate of discharges in sex-work cases was about the same.
For now, regardless of what the DA will do with the cases, Mission Station’s captain has committed to approving overtime and sending more officers to the Capp Street area when possible.