Why foot patrols make sense

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By Tim Redmond

I had lunch with the chief of police yesterday. George Gascon is far sharper than the past few people to occupy that office, and seems to understand the need to reach out to the news media and to people who don’t agree with him. He’s actually a pretty skilled politician -- which is a bit scary to folks who think he’s going in the wrong direction

And on a lot of things, I think he is.

We talked a lot about the sit-lie law that he’s been pushing, which I wrote about this week. Gascon insisted that he doesn’t want to use the law as a way to sweep homeless people off the streets; in fact, he told me, he doesn’t want to put anyone in jail, not at first, anyway. He’s rather use the law as a tool to get the young bullies and thugs (who are, by the way, a real problem on Haight St.) into the criminal justice system, where they might get access to services that could help them change their behavior.

I don’t see it working. What I see is either (a) the troublemakers will simply stand up when the cops arrive and walk to another part of the street or (b) some will get arrested, released, arrested, released, etc. -- rejecting or ignoring all possible services -- then ultimately, on the fourth or fifth offense, wind up in jail.

And all of of those arrests and court hearings are expensive.

In fact, Gascon and I agreed on two central points: (1) Putting two cops on foot patrol on Haight Street, between Buena Vista Park and Golden Gate Park, 13 hours a day, would end the problem pretty quickly and (2) the cost of doing that, which he put at close to $1 million a year (a bit high, I think), is probably lower than the cost of arresting, prosecuting, defending and incarcerating the Haight bullies.

This is something to look at.

Sup. Ross Mirkarimi wants to hold a hearing on the issue, and I think he ought to ask the controller or the budget analyst to examiner the real costs: What’s the price tag of foot patrols in the Haight? What’s the cost to the district attorney, the public defender, the courts and the Sheriff’s Office of implementing a sit-lie law? And could the foot patrols be a cheaper way of solving this problem?

And whatever Gascon says about his intent, once you pass a law like this -- a law making it a crime to sit or lie on the sidewalk -- it’s there, on the books, ripe for abuse. Gascon won’t be the chief forever. And he has to answer to the mayor, who may want to use the law a little differently.

So before we go that route, why not try foot patrols? According to Gascon, the department can’t afford it; with a huge budget deficit and cuts on the way for every agency, spending a million bucks on Haight Street doesn’t make sense. But the supervisors should look at this citywide; spending $1 million on preventing crime with foot patrols (if that’s what it would really cost) may be a lot more cost-effective than spending $2 million arresting, prosecuting, defending, sentencing and incarcerating people.

It’s at least worth a try.