SFPD Chief George Gascon kicked off today’s press conference about a Community Ambassadors program on the Third Street corridor by saying that it’s a grassroots pilot.
“This is not a police program, it’s a community program,” Gascon said, as he introduced Adrienne Pon from the Mayor’s Office to speak about what is being framed as a trailblazing effort to address violence on public transit at a time when money is tight all around.
Board President David Chiu, Sups. Carmen Chu, Sophie Maxwell and Eric Mar, and Chinese Chamber of Commerce consultant Rose Pak were also in attendance and everyone was all smiles and put on an apparent show of solidarity for what appears to be a desperately needed program
But Chiu did not know that the press conference was happening, when I called him last night for details. I'd assumed that he would be in the loop as the Board President and the most visible of the city’s top Asian American political leaders. But as Chiu confirmed today, he only was briefed a few hours before it took place.
Asked what was going on, Chiu waxed diplomatic.
“As you know, I didn’t know about it yesterday when you called,” Chiu said. “So, when I heard about it, I called the Chief and he sent the information. I’m happy this is happening.”
Oddly, when I called the SFPD this morning to confirm that today’s press conference was happening, I was asked who had told me about it. By then, I also knew that D. 10 candidate Marlene Tran was going to be speaking at the press conference. And while it’s great that Tran is an advocate for public safety programs, it’s weird that a candidate on the November ballot was in Gascon's press conference loop, when Board President Chiu was not.
“We are in a neighborhood with serious public safety concerns,” Chiu told reporters today. “The issues that come from one of our ethnic communities are of concern for us all.
“We are working with the Mayor’s Office and the Chief,” Chiu continued, noting that the Board has been working hard to restore funding for violence prevention programs and to ensure there is funding for a new program for translation services.
“A multi-ethnic program is the type of program we need to move the healing process forward,” Chiu said, thanking the SFPD and the District Attorney’s Office for working to help victims of violence get help and translation services.
Sup. Maxwell talked about how the Ambassadors Program will be good for seniors, young people and very very young people.
“We need to make sure we continue these kinds of programs,” Maxwell said.
Sup. Eric Mar thanked AT& T for providing cell phones to the 12 outreach workers who have been trained as Community Ambassadors.
And Pon of the Mayor’s Office promised that this would be the first of many efforts to address public safety concerns.
‘There is no place for violence in the community,” Pon said. “Any time anyone gets hurt, it rips a hole in the fabric of society. It’s not just the recent acts of physical violence and threats against some of our residents. No one should have to contend with being spit upon and name-calling and threats.”
Thanking Sharen Hewitt, Rose Pak and “the courageous community members who came forward,” Pon said the pilot program will last until mid-September and will focus on the Number 9-San Bruno bus and the T-Third line. Funding is coming from the city’s general fund and federal job stimulus funds.
“Unfortunately, those funds are going to end in September, so we’re looking for funding from the corporate community,” Pon said, referring to AT&T.
She described the Community Ambassadors program as a “non-law enforcement presence.”
“People can get along regardless of their cultural and linguistic differences,” Pon said.
AT& T California President Ken McNeely talked about his company’s “long and storied history”, noting that the first transcontinental call happened over 100 years ago and involved a call from San Francisco’s Chinatown to New York City.
“We’re in the business of really connecting people,” McNeely said.
Sup. Carmen Chu said the pilot program is the beginning of efforts to build community across ethnic lines.
“It starts to sends a message about what we want to accomplish,” Chu said.
“Crime is not something we want to see tolerated,” Chu continued.
On August 3, the Board considered legislation that Chu authored to implement higher penalties for crimes on and around Muni. Like the Community Ambassadors program, Chu's legislation came in response to recent attacks on Asian Americans by African-American teens. In one case, a group beat a 57-year-old woman then pushed her onto the tracks. In another, an 83-year-old man died in the hospital after he was assaulted.
If passed, Chu's legislation would increase the penalties for aggressive pursuit and loitering while carrying a concealed weapon to $1,000 if the crime occurred on or around MUNI (as opposed to $500 for the same crime committed elsewhere.) The Board also recommended that juveniles convicted of these crimes be given community service or in-home sentences instead of probation or juvenile hall.
Police Commission President Dr. Joe Marshall was also on hand today to voice his enthusiasm for the Community Ambassadors pilot.
“This is pretty cool,” Marshall said. “We got a model. I don’t know if any other cities are doing this, but they should be. I commend the ambassadors for being involved.”
And D. 10 candidate Marlene Tran said the program represented an opportunity to work “for peace and harmony.”
“This is an auspicious occasion,” Tran said, noting that there would be “double happiness” in the Asian American community over two community hubs, one in Viz Valley, the other in the Bayview.
“We encourage more collaboration amongst our community,” she said.
Rose Pak, consultant to the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, hinted that she would be squeezing more money out of AT&T.
“I knew we had a problem, and I knew who to go to,” Pak said, noting that she wasn’t not going to let AT&T “get away with pilot support.”
“I expect them to write a big check," she said.
Pon told reporters that the Community Ambassadors speak a total of seven languages: English, Cantonese, Mandarin, Vietnamese, Spanish, Samoan and Hawaiian.
But when reporters asked how City Attorney Dennis Herrera’s newly announced gang injunction against two warring street gangs, the Down Below Gangsters and Towerside Gang, in Viz Valley, might be compromised by the Community Ambassadors program, Gascon stepped forward.
“If thoughtfully implemented, gang injunctions can be a powerful tool,” Gascon said, noting he believes the Community Ambassadors will be a model that “we’d like to take to other neighborhoods.”
But how can 12 people armed solely with AT&T cell phones and fluorescent yellow jackets tackle what seems primarily to be youth violence against Asians? And what will happen in six weeks when the pilot program’s funding dries up?
“For the past two weeks, and continuously until mid-September, they are going through training at the SFPD and the MTA,” Pon said, noting that some of this training involved cultural and linguistic competency training.
“We’re building a pilot,” Pon continued. “The phones are preprogrammed to speed dial the SFPD, and we recruited these 12 ambassadors from over a hundred candidates in the Jobs Now program’s census outreach team. So, they are used to working in public and are comfortable with working with individuals of diverse backgrounds and ethnicities.
Pon acknowledged that the pilot has a shoestring budget.
“We are seeking private and foundation funding, so I’ll be doing lots of grant writing,” Pon continued, noting that a permanent program would need “at least half a million dollar budget.”
Asked if the Mayor’s Office was kept in the loop about today’s event more than Chiu, Pon smiled.
“SFPD called the conference and we are all making sure that we are working together," Pon said.
But AT&T’s Ken McNeely was happy to talk about his company’s efforts to provide cell phones for connecting with first responders.
“Public-private partnerships are critically important,” McNeely told the Guardian.
“We’ve made education one of our key pillars for giving back,” he said. “ For us all to do well, it’s going to take public private partnerships."