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SF Police Chief: Protect and Preserve the Tenderloin

SF Police Chief: Protect and Preserve the Tenderloin

Can police Chief George Gascón clean up this San Francisco district without pushing the poor out?

John Buntin | Governing Magazine

May 07, 2010

As a 20-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department, George Gascón isn’t exactly new to tough neighborhoods. During the late 1970s, he worked the Hollywood Division when the once-fabled neighborhood was known primarily for its transvestite streetwalkers and drug sales. In the late 1980s, he moved to Hollenbeck, a proud Chicano community in East L.A. with deep roots-and some of the city’s oldest gangs. But last summer, Gascón took a walk through the 20-block triangle of downtown San Francisco known as the Tenderloin just a few weeks before he was sworn in as San Francisco’s new police chief-and he was shocked by what he saw.

“It took me back, how open it was,” says Gascón. Drug dealers openly peddled their wares-OxyContin, crack cocaine, heroin-on the sidewalk as tourists wandered through and schoolchildren walked home. Dressed in civilian clothes, Gascón watched-“just really surprised, quite frankly”-as police officers simply drove by, not stopping to address the obvious criminal behavior taking place. To Gascón, the Tenderloin was like a scene from the 1970s, before the Broken Windows theory-from James Q. Wilson and George Kelling, which holds that outward signs of disorder give rise to crime (and conversely, that outward signs of order reduce it)-changed what behavior was acceptable in most cities.

“This is a place where there are no consequences,” says Gascón. “It was the norm of the place.” In Gascón’s mind, that made it the perfect place “to make a point.” And so, soon after being sworn into office as San Francisco’s new chief of police in August 2009, Gascón announced that one of his top priorities would be to clean up the Tenderloin. What followed, however, was anything but a straightforward application of proper police tactics. Instead, Gascón came face to face with difficult questions about how the city should house and serve its neediest residents. Arching over them is an even larger question: Can a troubled neighborhood be changed without changing its residents?

Continue reading Protecting and Preserving the Tenderloin at Governing Magazine

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