Residents and business owners of the Mission District spent much of a Monday community meeting begging San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott to pay more attention to the neighborhood, pointing to what they insisted are bad and worsening conditions.
During a community meeting at Mission Presbyterian Church, some 100 people gathered to demand additional police presence to make the neighborhood feel safer. Some were hesitant to call for more law enforcement, fearing biased or misdirected policing, but those who spoke seemed unanimously supportive of some police response to assaults, vandalism and theft, and rampant drug use.
“I’ve never seen an overwhelming response like I’ve seen for Union Square,” said Ryen Motzek, the head of the Mission Merchants Association. “But we have shootings and killings in front of businesses on Mission Street and Valencia Street, and the response is extremely underwhelming.”
The meeting was called after a 78-year-old woman was violently mugged last month near the 16th Street BART plaza, said organizer Roberto Hernandez.
Since holding a press conference a month ago to draw attention to the attack, Hernandez said 113 women and 21 youths have come forward, saying they had also been assaulted, robbed, or harassed in the area. So, he decided to organize a listening session with Scott and local police commissioners Jesús Gabriel Yáñez and Debra Walker, both longtime Mission residents.
One woman, a vendor who has been selling goods at the 24th Street BART plaza for 10 years, said in Spanish that she is scared of armed people in the plaza, especially after someone was shot there recently.
“Many of us sell in the street. I pay taxes… I pay for permits,” she said. She said that those selling stolen goods undercut her business.
A permitting system to deter sales of stolen items went into effect in September, and police are often stationed in the plaza during the day to help the Department of Public Works enforce the new rules. When officials are not present, the activity returns.
The BART plazas serve as the gateway to the Mission District for out-of-towners. Many able-bodied people familiar with the area continue to navigate it comfortably. But the atmosphere has become far more chaotic in the past year, with quick vendor turnover and more open drug sales and use as people seek out the city’s limited public spaces.
Sales of stolen goods was not the sole complaint on Monday evening. Many said the public alcohol and drug use makes them uncomfortable, and makes them wary of sending elders and youth out alone. Others said they have been threatened or attacked with weapons over misunderstandings or neighborly disagreements.
Motzek accused city leaders of “virtue signaling” and “misguided compassion” — referring to performative political pandering — by allowing public drug use, saying cracking down on deadly fentanyl was different from the failed war on drugs of the late 20th century. Parents expressed fears that their children could get such easy access to fentanyl.
Audience members clapped in agreement as dozens of people aired their grievances, munching on burritos and chips that were provided at the event.
Scott took notes during the meeting, and asked that the community continue to hold him accountable by sharing their thoughts and experiences. He said he wanted action items to take away with him, but the primary action requested by the community was more, and better, policing.
“It’s just as frustrating for me, believe me, as it is for you,” Scott said, adding that he is committed to sending more police support to the neighborhood, even though he said this could upset some residents. He noted that crime has generally decreased in recent years, and the Mission has seen fewer homicides this year than it did at this point last year.
Reported assaults in the Mission District are on par with this time last year, and robberies, thefts, and burglaries are all down this year, according to the SFPD’s Crime Dashboard of reported incidents.
But Scott acknowledged that SFPD needs to “get better at spreading the wealth [of officers] around a little bit more — a lot more, actually.” He said that Commander Julian Ng had been assigned to address issues in the Mission and Tenderloin neighborhoods, in addition to the districts’ captains.
Last year, the SFPD officers flooded Union Square after the highly publicized lootings of commercial stores and, just this week, the department has moved to increase police presence at Stonestown Galleria after large fights broke out. Mission residents on Monday asked why small, local businesses do not get the same support.
The attendees understood the double-edged nature of their ask for more police — a request that may come true, if an overtime budget is approved by the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday. Supervisor Hillary Ronen voted to approve the budget last week, with the caveat that more resources would be allocated to the Mission.
“It’s easy to say we want more police, and we want to be safe and we want to feel safe. But Latinos, we don’t always feel safe with police. And that is a huge issue that people have to understand,” said Tracy Gallardo Brown, an aide for Supervisor Shamann Walton and a longtime Mission resident. Unlike many in attendance on Monday, she was hesitant to embrace the idea that additional police would necessarily make the neighborhood safer for Latinx communities.
And many of those present on Monday night complained that the police responses they do get prove ineffective.
One woman, an attendee of the church, noted that while barricades and additional cops on Capp Street may have been successful in driving out some sex workers and pacifying those residents, it wasn’t a real fix: The sex workers had simply moved to different blocks.
“I don’t have anything against prostitution,” said the woman in Spanish, who acknowledged that sex workers were just making their own living. But she said she was grabbed and nearly violated recently while waiting for the bus in the early morning hours after working a night shift, and felt unsafe amid chaotic conditions after dark.
Residents of the Capp Street blocks seeing heightened enforcement in the past several weeks, meanwhile, were thrilled with the results. Since mid-February, each block between 19th and 22nd streets has had concrete barriers preventing through traffic, forcing cars to make U-turns to exit each block.
Scott asked attendees to raise their hands if they supported the Capp Street blockades, and at least two-thirds of those present raised their hands, some enthusiastically and others more reluctantly. Scott said he intends to keep the barricades in place indefinitely. Despite this supposed success story, other residents complained of spillover onto 21st Street, and of playgrounds overrun with drug dealing.
Generally, those who spoke seemed to be at their wits’ end. Even when police are present, many residents could speak to instances when help was needed but never quite came.
Eric Liittschwager, the owner of the 23rd and South Van Ness Grocery Outlet, said he has hired private security, but that there were times when shoplifting would happen anyway. Police would come and do nothing; sometimes the thief would get to leave with the stolen items.
“You don’t have to arrest the guys. Just don’t make it easy for them,” he said. “There’s no prosecution. We waste 30, 45 minutes to an hour dealing with it, and the person walks off.”
Another woman, IrmaIris Vargas, said that her new neighbors had their garage broken into three times, and that police never came. Vargas, formerly in law enforcement and the president of the Puerto Rican Club, was frustrated that the city couldn’t help with theft or vandalism, but that whenever the club or her house was tagged, she would immediately receive a notice to clean it up.
And at the BART plazas, where many residents’ concerns are centered, it is not uncommon to see police and other city officials standing guard, while people only yards away consume drugs or sell apparently stolen objects.
One woman who has run a business at 24th Street and South Van Ness Avenue, and lived in the area for decades, said she doesn’t know what else to do when she sees, for example, a naked man on her street corner.
“I gotta call the police. I know it’s not the right thing, but I believe in the police, too,” she said. “I don’t believe in brutality and stuff like that.”
She worries about her son walking through the neighborhood from school, even though, in years past, she let him roam around more freely.
“Please do something. Not only for us, for the elders, but the future for our children … We beg you.”
And, for all of Scott’s emphasis on working together and listening to the community, some attendees remained unconvinced of the department’s dedication, remembering empty promises of the past.
Daniel Salazar, a member of the San Francisco LowRider Council, said his organization’s efforts to “occupy” the 24th Street plaza by bringing lights, music, and culture on certain Friday evenings were not met with enough support from the SFPD.
The LowRiders’ community-led solution got some reallocated funding from Ronen’s office, and one attendee at Monday’s meeting referred to the group’s efforts as “free ambassador work” that could supplement or serve as an alternative to policing.
But Salazar said he was told that the Friday night events would no longer get backup from the SFPD. “You said we got to be a team. Where’s the team?”
That very evening, Ronen’s aide, Santiago Lerma, told Mission Local that he expected police would be patrolling the plaza until 11 p.m. SFPD command staff had assured him that officers were out there.
As this reporter left the meeting around 8:30 p.m., the northeast plaza at 24th and Mission was calm but full of people, some huddled in clusters, others selling items out of small suitcases. Young people arrived with full backpacks and disappeared into the center of the crowd. No police were in sight.