San Francisco Worries Over Spike in Homicide Rate

From the Contra Costa Times

Posted on Sun, Jun. 27, 2004

By Mary Anne Ostrom

SAN FRANCISCO – Just as summer travelers are again crowding onto cable cars, San Francisco’s leaders are concerned that the city’s image as a tourist playground is threatened by the highest murder rate since 1995.

Brazen violence in the past week has brought the year’s total homicides to 47, not including two fatal shootings by law enforcement officials. Oakland, the historic leader in Bay Area slayings, has 39.

“We are looking at an epidemic,” District Attorney Kamala Harris warned residents of the Bayview-Hunter’s Point district gathered by the KPIX Channel 5 news department this month. “At the rate we are going we will have 100 murders. We’ve passed Oakland. We pride ourselves on being a civilized city. These numbers don’t represent that.”

For comparison, San Jose has recorded 17 homicides and three fatal shootings by officers so far this year.

While the San Francisco homicide numbers represent a snapshot in time, city officials are responding in both predictable and surprising ways. The mayor is spending nights and weekends in violence-plagued neighborhoods, advising youths, promising jobs and pleading with witnesses to talk.

District Attorney Harris and Police Chief Heather Fong have been visiting long-neglected neighborhoods, too. Fong has assigned more officers to housing projects, and Harris vows to crack down on gun-toting criminals and the dealers who supply weapons.

On Monday, a 27-year-old man was shot to death in a midafternoon drive-by shooting in the Potrero Hill neighborhood, sending residents scurrying to avoid a spray of 40 bullets. On Wednesday, an armed robbery suspect allegedly stabbed a deputy sheriff who was trying to subdue him during a noontime chase a few blocks from City Hall. The knife-wielding suspect, described as a young man, was shot to death by the deputy’s partner after he allegedly tried to stab the partner.

As the scene unfolded, the lunchtime crowd at Allstar sandwich shop ducked behind the counter.

In February, the newly elected Newsom gained the national stage for sanctioning same-sex marriages. But what is defining his administration locally is how he intends to quell the violence in which nearly two San Franciscans a week are violently killed.

Many are young. More than half are under 30.

“We know we won’t solve the violence problem in San Francisco by looking at it from a criminal justice perspective alone,” Newsom said this month, announcing San Francisco’s first Freedom School, an eight-week church-based summer program that emphasizes conflict resolution to students from kindergarten to 12th grade.

Then he gave a pep talk to teens gathered for a city-sponsored job training program that will employ more than 3,300 young people this summer in jobs ranging from Wells Fargo clerks to Starbucks baristas.

Much is at stake for the city and its politically ambitious mayor, his newly appointed police chief, Fong, and the recently elected Harris. Newsom has made it a point to play basketball in Bayview-Hunter’s Point, chat privately with gang members and go door-to-door in the Sunnydale projects. In one recent unpublicized outing, he took 30 teens shopping at Old Navy and for burgers at Mel’s Diner. The businesses, at the mayor’s request, paid.

Despite the mayor’s visibility and verbal commitments, some popular programs are facing the ax just as summer begins.

Maurice Sullivan, 33, a former gang member who helps once-feuding youth find work through his Project One Love program, led a march along Bayview-Hunter’s Point’s Third Street last year to demand jobs on San Francisco Municipal Railway’s light-rail extension there. Sullivan and his supporters won 10 full-time jobs. For nearly a year, 30 men and women, most of them under age 30, have acted as pedestrian monitors, earning union-scale $22.39 an hour to help residents cross torn-up Third Street.

The funds run out June 30. City officials say the jobs were never meant to be permanent and can’t guarantee future employment, though a citywide program is under consideration.

Now Sullivan, who marched in support of Newsom’s election, is planning to march to City Hall to demand the pedestrian monitor jobs be saved. He’s collected several hundred signatures to prove the neighborhood supports him.

“Newsom can stop coming out here to play basketball with us; he should come out here with jobs,” said Richard Stewart, a Bayview-Hunter’s Point resident who shot hoops with the mayor in March.

District Attorney Harris is predicting that despite the city’s efforts to create jobs, there still aren’t enough, and escalating feuds and easy access to firearms could bring more violence in the summer. More than three-quarters of the victims died in gun violence.

One reason that no one expects the violence to end soon: Just five arrests have been made in the 47 homicides. Often witnesses, sometimes even victims, refuse to cooperate, say law enforcement officials.

While the city endured higher rates of killings in the early 1990s, topping 160 in 1992, the resurgence of violence is being driven in part by young people, often armed with automatic weapons, who prowl some of the poorest, out-of-the-way pockets of the city. The victims typically live in the neighborhood and are specifically targeted, though some have been wrongly targeted or have been innocent bystanders.

One quarter of the homicides this year occurred within a few miles of Bayview-Hunter’s Point. Two-thirds of the victims were black.

Law enforcement blames much of the violence on a group of loosely connected gang members, possibly no more than several dozen, who settle turf fights and long-simmering feuds with knives, guns and often assault weapons. Some come from neighboring cities or are just out of jail or the California Youth Authority. Others are older and enlist unhappy, unoccupied young teens in the city’s housing projects to commit robberies and shootings.

“A very small number are responsible for a significant part of the violence,” said San Francisco Police Department anti-gang task force leader Tony Chaplin.

In addition to putting more officers in the projects, the city is pouring additional money into witness protection programs, but with few results

Newsom, seeking witnesses to the May slaying of 26-year-old Chris Johnson in the Western Addition, even took the drastic step of releasing a video of the murder. The graphic video shows Johnson getting in his car as he apparently is being set up by four men, all in broad daylight in a shopping center. It led the evening news, but no arrests have been made.