Editorial: Sitting on the sidewalk is no crime

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Passing the new law might make the supervisors look tough on crime--but it's not going to make Haight Street any safer

EDITORIAL The recent San Francisco Police Department crackdown on street kids in the Haight Ashbury conclusively proves two things:

1. Chief George Gascón is a media hound who will shift policy and priorities in an instant in response to a couple of newspaper stories, and

2. There's no need for any new law against sitting on the sidewalk.

Even before the ink was dry on a column by the Chronicle's C.W. Nevius, who lives in the East Bay suburbs, decrying the "aggressive punks" in the Haight, the Park Station had stepped up foot patrols in the neighborhood. Cops walking beats began making arrests, targeting young people who allegedly had threatened shoppers and residents.

And the crackdown has had an impact. "It proves exactly what I've been saying," Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, who represents the district, told us. "When you put cops out on the streets, walking beats on foot, you get results."

One of the reasons you get results is simple deterrence: Beat cops may not be able to stop every gangland shooting in the Western Addition or the Mission or Bayview. But when you've got enough uniformed officers walking up and down Haight Street, life becomes a lot more unpleasant for small-time thugs. And while not every case will get prosecuted, not every case has to — this isn't murder we're talking about. It's bad behavior by a group of people that will continue only as long as it's tolerated.

Haight Street has attracted more than its share of social problems over the years, and neighborhood organizing has helped address many of them. Community leaders, merchants, and residents worked with the cops in the 1970s to drive heroin dealers out. A decade or so later, neo-Nazi skinheads met the same fate. In no case has the problem been solved by long jail sentences or tougher laws.

Yet with Nevius pushing the issue, there's a call for a ban on sitting and lying on the sidewalk — a move to criminalize behavior that, for the most part, over many years, has not been a serious law-enforcement problem. We've seen this siren song before — in the early 1980s, when Dianne Feinstein was mayor, San Francisco police began conducting massive sweeps, arresting homeless people who congregated on the sidewalk and charging them with violating a law that banned blocking a thoroughfare. The ACLU took the city to court, the Guardian wrote several stories about it, homeless advocates complained loudly — and while the courts ultimately upheld the law, the sweeps came to an end.

And the misdirected law-enforcement did nothing to address the problem of homelessness. It didn't make the streets safer — or put one more person in an affordable housing unit.

A law banning sitting on the sidewalk would have similar problems. "It gives the police a way to arrest people based entirely on the way they look," said Alan Schlosser, legal director for the ACLU of Northern California. Homeless people, people who have no intention of doing anything violent or dangerous — anyone who happens to be sitting in the wrong place could be swept up and charged with a crime.

Passing a new law might make the supervisors look tough on crime — but it's not going to make Haight Street any safer. There's no reason to outlaw the nonviolent, non-threatening act of sitting on a public sidewalk — particularly when simply enforcing existing laws against harassment, assault, threats, and other violent behavior is a lot more effective. The supervisors should resist any move to pass a "sit/lie" law that will be hard to enforce, ripe for abuse, and probably won't survive the inevitable (expensive) court challenge.