Hippies once defended neighborhood police stations

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The recent proposal to close half of the city’s police stations isn’t the first time such a thing has been recommended here. A group of consultants from the East Coast released a report, or "police effectiveness review," May 14 that suggested cutting the list of 10 police districts in the city down to five and placing specialized units, like gang and drug task forces, in the stations closed by the district realignment.

It also said that the northeast and middle sections of the city have high concentrations of crime and need a greater police presence. The Central and Southern stations need to be rebuilt immediately and the remaining eight stations aren’t being used effectively, according to the report. Plus, the workload isn’t fairly distributed. You can imagine that there’s probably a difference between chasing murderers in the Mission and stalking illegally parked import cars in the Marina.

But Guardian editor Tim Redmond reminded me recently that a similar proposal to close down several neighborhood police stations was made back in the early ‘70s, so I called Rene Cazenave of the local Council of Community Housing Organizations who Tim said might remember some of the finer points. Sure enough, despite Casenave insisting that his memory was hazy, he did remember quite a lot.

Hippies in the Haight-Ashbury District – who by then weren’t necessarily hippies as much as they were Abbie Hoffman-style radicals – had fought to block a plan by then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein to close several stations in town. Feinstein claimed it would save money and allow the city to centralize many police functions downtown where specialized units would be dispatched from when necessary.

But for the radicals (and even some conservatives and moderates living in the Haight) who opposed it, the thinking went like this: The police officers working at Park Station, which covers the Haight-Ashbury area, knew the neighborhood better than anyone else. They had formed relationships with many of the people who lived there, and they knew who the real criminals were. They got along with a lot of the lefties, but the specialized units like the narcs of the city’s drug task force mostly preferred to bust heads in the neighborhood and had no intimate relationship with the people they were harassing and arresting.

So the residents launched a “Save our Police” movement that helped stop Feinstein from creating a law-enforcement infrastructure that many people believed would do more to serve political retribution against lefties emanating from City Hall than focus on what made the neighborhood safer, like foot and horse patrols and genuine bonds with the locals – the early ’70s version of community policing. Gosh. Does that fight sound familiar?

“It was that kind of weird amalgam that Haight-Ashbury stood for in those days, but it was the same argument that would have worked in a neighborhood like Glen Park,” Cazenave said. He said the radicals even organized in the ‘70s to oust heroin dealers who were increasingly destroying the neighborhood. Pot was another, much less troublesome matter, of course.

As for the most recent police effectiveness review, it also said, interestingly, that for a city on the edge of Silicone Valley, our police department does a poor job maintaining statistics and the technology we have for records management and dispatch is antiquated. The SFPD can’t even keep track of the cops themselves, according to the report:

“The SFPD was unable to provide accurate staffing numbers and could not provide a breakdown of functional job tasks associated with the categories of employees. Without this basic breakdown it is impossible to determine the specific number of department members assigned to sector cars, foot patrols, undercover assignments and various other tasks.”

If you’ve ever spent any time at the Hall of Justice, where Southern Station is located, you know it’s a disorganized relic that would fit better as a prop in a Dirty Harry flick than a place that actually processes people accused of crimes. There’s also a lot of grumbling among cops themselves about the report having come from mere consultants. According to one commenter writing online May 13 at the SF Bay Area Cops Forum:

“Out-of-state consulting firms have no clue as to what is happening in the areas they are being asked to consult on. Some are just ways to get some money and put out some BS white paper for some idiot manager to show off. Most of the consultants were most likely number crunchers and not law enforcement. If the city actually believes this white paper then this city is truely [sic] lost.”

San Francisco police officer Andrew Cohen, who was targeted for discipline in 2005 by Chief Heather Fong and the mayor after making a video that satirized trans and homeless people and African Americans, sneered on his blog, Insidethesfpd, that the city spent nearly $500,000 to hire a “relatively inexperienced company from Massachusetts.” Cohen says the department convened a meeting with department brass after the report was released but the staffers attending weren’t offered a chance to respond to its conclusions.

On the idea of reducing police stations in the city, Cohen wrote:

“Let me say, that more likely than not, this ain’t ever gonna happen. Not now; not ever. As a matter of fact, there is a better chance of an additional district station opening before a single one will be closed.... The chief could’ve – should’ve – asked some of the more intelligent cops within our department to analyze some of the stats, strategies and configurations, and they could probably have done a better job, quicker, and for one-fifth the cost.”

The consultants did survey SFPD staffers to see how they felt about the conditions of police facilities around the city. More than 30 percent amazingly complained that security itself was “insufficient” at the stations, and 60 to 70 percent declared that Web and email access were no good.

May we add one more? Accessing public records at the hall is an utter nightmare and it’s truly difficult to imagine it ever getting any better.

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