Jan. 12 was an ordinary morning on Haight Street, the legendary hippie-themed retail district that also happens to be a hangout for the down-and-out. Ordinary, that is, but for a ubiquitous jingle-jangle sound. Every dog on this always-dog-populated street had been recently hung with tags.
On Dec. 18, the San Francisco Police Department yanked two officers from their normal detail investigating citywide vicious dog attacks to walk the few blocks of Haight Street near Golden Gate Park citing all dog owners without tags or leashes, issuing more than 160 citations as of early last week.
According to Chief George Gascón, the Police Department has flooded upper Haight Street with cops assigned to write tickets for so-called "quality of life" violations, such as off-leash or tagless dogs, jaywalking, and other minor offenses. This is billed as a temporary fix to force the supposed hordes of drugged-out, smelly, jobless young bum-punks roaming Haight Street to move along and stop frightening tourists, neighbors, and shoppers.
"We were getting a lot of community complaints of the very aggressive behavior of young people lying around the neighborhood, many accompanied by very aggressive dogs, sometimes pit bulls, doing extremely aggressive panhandling, exhibiting threatening behavior that led to physical assaults of people," Gascón said.
I dislike surly bums and dangerous dogs as much as the next person. And Chief Gascón deserves some credit for addressing what he perceives as problems of pressing concern to San Franciscans. But interviews with dozens of homeless people, half a dozen providers of services to the homeless, cops on the beat, and the Park police station captain, along with my personal observations as a longtime Haight-Ashbury neighbor, have caused me to believe there's more bark than bite to the chief's crackdown.
When I spoke with Park station Chief Teri Barrett, she asked me if I was writing a "pro-enforcement" or "anti-enforcement" column. But the month-old diversion of officers to the Haight does not look like enforcement in the sense of a sincere government effort to stop bullies, junkies, dealers, runaways, and mentally ill people menacing locals and tourists. Rather, it strikes me as counterproductive grandstanding performed in advance of a political showdown over a pet cause of our new police chief.
"The long-term strategy is the enactment of an ordinance or a citywide charter amendment that says at certain times of the day, people would not be allowed to sit and lie on the sidewalk," Gascón said.
I don't believe there's a civil right to sprawl out and completely block the sidewalk, and that's what such ordinances in other cities are narrowly crafted to outlaw.
But Gascón's proposal is more than that. He's billing it as a long-term version of the petty harassment campaign cops are waging on Haight Street. And it should not become law.
To examine how the current Haight "crackdown" is a pantomime, rather than real-life, answer to the neighborhood's problems, it's worth examining what a real one might consist of.
A crackdown by definition involves a specific problem and an honest-to-goodness solution aggressively executed. In this case, it's hard to identify either.
According to newspaper accounts and anecdotes shared with Gascón and Barrett in e-mails and at a community meeting, a particular band of surly-dog-husbanding homeless people has been intimidating, and even attacking, homeowners and other upstanding people in the Haight.
Ordinarily, police response to such assaults would involve investigating, arresting, and sentencing people accused of assault.
But Barrett tells me her officers have dealt with only one such case recently — despite hoopla about a supposed wave of violent intimidation by homeless Haight Street thugs. It involved mano a mano, not perro a humano violence. And the district attorney threw the case out because the assigned prosecutor thought it looked like mutual combat rather than an attack, Barrett said.
To sic a dangerous dog on someone is a criminal assault — worse if the cur actually catches someone in its fangs. And since 2001, when Diane Whipple was infamously killed by two Presa Canarios, "if a dog is across the street and it growls at you, we hear about it," said Sergeant Bill Herndon, San Francisco's lead investigator and hearing officer for cases involving vicious and dangerous animals. However, he has received no recent reports about incidents involving dogs on or near Haight Street. "I would be the one who'd know if there were," he said.
Rather than solving an ephemeral Haight violent-gutter-mutt problem, the reassignment of Herndon and Officer John Denny, the city's other dog-attack investigator, has caused a minor backlog in citywide violent-animal investigations.
When I pressed Barrett about the lack of specific reports about intimidation-by-dog, she changed tack and said neighbors were actually complaining more about an unpleasant feel to the area.
"It's more the totality of the complaints going on Haight Street." she said. "People were harassing them, and they feel threatened. That's the underlying tone. That's what they're complaining about. I had a community meeting last week, and I had 50 people there. These are regular people in the Haight. And these people on Haight Street said this was different than the past."
Knots of homeless people have indeed been a fixture of Haight Street for decades. And some neighbors, particularly ones in the $3 million houses to the south, have complained the whole time. Nowadays you will see clots of kids outside the Huckleberry Youth Services on Cole near Haight, or the Haight-Ashbury Youth Outreach a block down Haight Street. They have tattoos and piercings, and wear on their faces the trauma of heroin habits, alcohol addiction, and, often, infection with hepatitis C.
San Francisco doesn't have enough skilled caseworkers, shelter beds, transitional housing slots, detox services, or methadone clinic spaces to get them started on the long route off the sidewalk. Instead, the current "short-term" solution involves days and days of police officer comp time and books and books of nuisance tickets.
On Jan. 12, David, a guitar-carrying twentysomething in a Baja hoodie, was hanging around near the corner of Haight and Cole with four other youngsters, two of whom were panhandling. He'd recently been stopped by a cop on Haight Street — for jaywalking. "I can see getting a ticket for smoking a joint in public. But walking across the street to get some water?" he said.
The thing about such tickets is that if they pile up, they can lead to a warrant. If an arrest results in a night in jail, homeless people can lose all their possessions, medication, identification, and paperwork for social services. And when they're released back on the street, they might be more stuck than they'd already been.
If Chief Gascón is successful, his temporary solution of nuisance citations will run its course, and cops will go back to their regular jobs fighting actual crimes elsewhere. A permanent sit-lie ban will get passed, doing absolutely nothing to get gutter punks, dope fiends, sexually abused runaways, leftover Summer of Love drunks, mentally ill people without health care, the desperate unemployed, or any other homeless people off the street. But when they lie on the sidewalk, they'll be required to leave space for pedestrians. And those with dogs will be more likely than other San Franciscans to have tags jangling from their pets' necks.
Having pretended to solve this one, San Francisco will be able to move on to doggedly solving its next problem.