Sitting boundaries

Strong police push for the proposed sit/lie ordinance raises eyebrows

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Aggressive lobbying efforts by the San Francisco Police Department and some of its allies who are pushing a proposed sit/lie ordinance have irked some current and former members of the Board of Supervisors.

The legislation was privately created by new Police Chief George Gascón and then played up in the mainstream media. It would make it illegal to sit or lie down on public sidewalks. Supporters say it would make it easier for cops to target people who harass neighborhood residents.

But in other cities where similar laws have been passed, protests have erupted from homeless-advocacy organizations and civil liberties groups, which say criminalizing this behavior unfairly (and unconstitutionally) targets homeless people who have nowhere else to go.

In Portland, Ore., a similar law was enacted then overturned by the courts. In Los Angeles, an ordinance against sleeping on the sidewalk was challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union, resulting in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in 2006 that unless adequate shelter is available for homeless people in L.A., arresting them for sleeping on the sidewalk amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.

But an e-mail action alert included in SFPD Central Station Capt. Anna Brown's monthly community newsletter encouraged people to contact the mayor and the Board of Supervisors to support the creation of a sit/lie ordinance. "Naturally, there is resistance from the left-leaning Board of Supervisors who feel this is an attack on the homeless population," it noted.

That unusually overt political plea caught the eye of Aaron Peskin, former president of the Board of Supervisors and current chair of the San Francisco Democratic Party, who called it "funky." Peskin told us he'd never seen an advocacy pitch like this go out in a captain's newsletter before, and he questioned whether this was an appropriate use of city resources.

But the City Attorney's Office says this doesn't fall under city laws banning electioneering by city employees, who are barred from using government resources to endorse a candidate or ballot initiative, or from doing any campaign-related work on city property.

Yet this kind of pitch "is not considered political activity," Jack Song, a spokesperson for City Attorney Dennis Herrera, told the Guardian.

But Sup. David Campos, a former police commissioner, frowned upon it nonetheless. "Something like this is not really helpful to the Board of Supervisors and the Police Department working together," Campos said.

Sup. Ross Mirkarimi took a similar view. At a recent Board of Supervisors meeting, he requested a hearing about the ordinance because he said the media-driven public debate had occurred without formal discussion. Anti-loitering and public nuisance laws are already on the books, Mirkarimi pointed out.

"What makes those laws inadequate?" he asked. "How would the proposed law augment what is already in effect?"

The alert wasn't actually written by Capt. Brown, who included it in her newsletter. It was drafted by the Community Leadership Alliance, an organization headed by David Villa-Lobos, a longtime resident of the Tenderloin and a candidate for the District 6 Supervisor seat.

Since Gascón floated the idea of creating a sit/lie ordinance, CLA has kicked into high gear to mobilize support, most recently issuing its action alert e-mail to 8,000 recipients. Police captains were included in the e-mail blast, Villa-Lobos told us, but each captain decides independently what to include in his or her newsletter.