Editor's Notes

The city's overcrowded jails have no room for people charged with a minor crime like sitting on the sidewalk

I was in the Haight the other day, and saw something that would have made Police Chief George Gascón and Chronicle columnist C.W. Nevius apoplectic. A group of young people, mostly men, were sitting right in the middle of the sidewalk. The scofflaws weren't blocking my path since I was on Haight and they were a ways up Ashbury. But if I had wanted to walk in that direction, they would have been in the way. Which means they were already breaking the law, and if I'd complained and a cop had come along, they probably would have stood up and walked away. I can't imagine they would have been arrested. In fact, if a beat officer had been walking Haight Street, they wouldn't have been sitting there in the first place.

Gascón and Nevius are beating the drums for a "sit-lie" law, which would make it a crime to sit or lie on a public sidewalk. Since young thugs hassling residents, tourists, and shoppers in the Haight have become a problem, the sit-lie thing has legs; it could become this year's version of Care Not Cash, the utterly bogus but politically catchy slogan that put Gavin Newsom in the Mayor's Office.

There's a populist anger about the poor behavior of a relatively small number of losers who are making life difficult for the generally upscale residents of the Haight, and progressives can't ignore it. Frustration over decades of failed homeless policies made Newsom's tough-love measure attractive. Explaining that it would never work, that it wasn't a rational policy response, didn't get the left anywhere.

That's what we're dealing with here. I can tell you, after watching Haight Street and its various generations of problems for more than 25 years, that a sit-lie law won't solve anything. I can tell you that as soon as an officer approaches the troublemakers sitting on the street, they'll do what any sane small-time crook would do: they'll stand up. Then they'll walk a few blocks away. If it keeps up, they'll stop sitting down altogether. You can threaten, bully, and hassle people just as easily from a standing position.

And if they do get arrested, they'll be released quickly (the city's overcrowded jails, packed to the gills with the folks Gascón has rounded up in his Tenderloin sweeps, has no room for people charged with a minor crime like sitting on the sidewalk). Then they'll be back.

I can tell you that the cost of arresting, charging, prosecuting, defending, and incarcerating these jerks would be way higher than the cost of having two cops walk up and down Haight Street all day, in uniform — a move that would absolutely solve the problem.

But this isn't about rationality — it's about emotion. Gascón has done a brilliant job, with the help of the Chron, of framing this as hard-headed law enforcement against the liberal supervisors.

Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, no fan of street crime, wants a hearing on the issue, to get some rational facts on the table. That's a good start — but we need an alternative proposal. How about a test: try having two cops walk the beat every day for three months, a visible community policing presence on Haight Street. If that doesn't work, we can always try something else.

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