Cops out of their cars

Pub date August 29, 2006
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL The politics of crime can be tricky for the left: progressives are against far-reaching and punitive crackdowns, against police abuse, against the pervasive financial waste in law enforcement … and sometimes can’t come up with answers when neighborhoods like Hunters Point and the Western Addition ask what local government is going to do to stop waves of violence like the homicide epidemic plaguing San Francisco today.
So it’s encouraging to see Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, a Green Party member representing District 5, taking the lead on demanding more beat cops for the highest-crime areas in town. Mirkarimi’s not pushing a traditional reactionary approach of suggesting that the city hire more police officers and lock more people in jail; he’s advocating a simple — and decidedly progressive — approach to the issue. He wants the cops out of their cars and on the streets. On foot.
The idea of beat cops and community policing isn’t new at all; in fact, it’s the modern approach of highly mobile officers in cars, dispatched by a central computer and radio system in response to emergency calls, that’s a relatively recent trend. Police brass love it — they can cover more ground with fewer troops — and a lot of patrol officers like it too. They have that big metal car to protect them from potentially hostile criminals, and they don’t have to interact every minute of every day with the people on the streets.
But cops walking the beat are a proven deterrent to crime — and that’s not merely because of their visible presence. Properly trained and motivated community police officers can forge ties with merchants, residents, and neighborhood leaders. They can figure out where problems are likely to happen. They can become an asset to the community — not an outside occupying force that residents neither trust nor respect.
It’s a crucial change: right now, one of the biggest problems the San Francisco Police Department faces in solving homicides is the unwillingness of witnesses to come forward, in part because of a general mistrust of police. When there’s a killing, homicide detectives appear as if out of nowhere, demanding answers; it’s little wonder nobody wants to talk to them.
We recognize that beat patrols won’t solve the homicide crisis by themselves. That’s a complex socioeconomic issue with roots in poverty and desperation, and a couple of folks in blue on the street corner can’t alleviate decades of political and economic neglect.
And we also realize that it can be expensive to put officers on foot — they can’t respond as fast, and it takes time to develop community ties. But Mirkarimi isn’t asking for a total overhaul of the SFPD’s operations. He’s asking for a modest pilot program, a one-year experiment that would put two foot patrols a day in the Western Addition, focusing on areas with the most violent crime. The ultimate goal, Mirkarimi says, is to create a citywide beat-patrol program.
It won’t be easy: the department seems to be pulling out all the stops to defeat Mirkarimi’s proposal, which will come before the Board of Supervisors on Sept. 19. The Police Commission needs to come out in support of Mirkarimi’s proposal and direct Chief Heather Fong and her senior staff to work to make it effective.
The supervisors, some of whom worry that beat patrols in high-crime districts will mean less police presence in other areas, should give this very limited program a chance. Nothing else is working. SFBG