“It’s like Frogger out there!” Capt. Jason Cherniss said, eliciting a laugh from the crowd as he talked about making environmental changes and getting people involved in public safety in the Tenderloin at his monthly community forum, most recently held Feb. 25 at the Tenderloin police station.
Community members were heavily involved in the meeting. One elderly woman warned people who do drugs and otherwise break the law near the senior center on O’Farrell Street to watch out for “the over-the-hill gang” and that they would have a “gaggle of gangsters” after them if they got too close.
As the commanding officer of the SFPD’s Tenderloin District, Cherniss is turning to new and creative ways of addressing the neighborhood’s notorious crime problems. In his vision, the focus is on environmental design rather than enforcement.
It might sound strange to hear a police captain saying law enforcement is not his primary objective. The way he sees it, though, if they just arrest people, the offenders will just keep doing the same things. However, changing the surroundings to make them “less attractive” to criminals, as Cherniss put it, could do more to lessen crime.
“I appreciate the arrests, but they’re just a band-aid,” said Cherniss.
One of the first things Cherniss discussed was the Take Back Operation, a collaborative effort to deal with negative activity on the 100 block of Golden Gate Ave. People on the block, such as business owners, got together and agreed to do something all at once to disrupt the activity for roughly 10-15 minutes. At the agreed upon time, people threw water and bleach on the sidewalk. This was done with the support of the Department of Public Works and a light police presence. It is planned to replicate the operation on Turk Street.
Turk Street is already the site of an experimental parking ban. Parking has not been allowed on the opening block of Turk to try to lower the high crime rates there. In the past, people have used vehicles as a screen to hide illegal activities and to make themselves less visible to police.
“If you remove that parking, [drug dealers] may not find it as appetizing,” said Cherniss.
The police are also working with the city’s planning department to come up with other environmental changes. For instance, retail businesses are asked to keep at least 40 percent of their windows visible and transparent.
Cherniss also stressed the importance of residential hotels in the area cleaning up and being more
careful about who they let stay.
Focusing on environmental change does not mean the police are backing down when it comes to enforcing the law. “Enforcement is through the roof,” said Lt. John Jaimerena, who has worked at the Tenderloin station for 20 years and is in charge of the station’s night watch. He added that Tenderloin officers had written more tickets in January and February than they had probably ever written before.
Cherniss also talked about pedestrian safety and how to cross the street. He said he has seen people cross on a red light with him standing right on the corner. He compared the sight of people drifting out into the street and crossing whenever they want to the video game Frogger. He said that he encourages children to wave as they cross the street to make it easier for drivers to see them.
After the captain spoke, the meeting was opened up to questions and comments from the crowd. I found it funny that, for all the Tenderloin’s supposed danger and rampant drug use, the people of the community raised such concerns as people smoking cigarettes less than 20 feet away from open doors, a gate banging at night, and people defecating on the sidewalks.
People got so animated about that last item they made it seem like you could not possibly walk around the area without seeing at least a few people using the ground as a toilet. While that discussion was going on, I couldn’t help but think instead of complaining about people pooping in public, they should be calling for more public restrooms.
Cherniss has hope for the Tenderloin. “I think we’re going to start seeing some changes in this neighborhood,” he said. He also tried to keep things in perspective. “Elimination of all drug dealing in the Tenderloin is a pretty lofty goal…should be [grateful] for the small victories,” Cherniss said.
Sgt. Patrick Kwan, an administrative assistant at the station, feels the Tenderloin is changing for the better. In 15 years, “I have never seen it as collaborative as it is now,” he said. Kwan added, “The Tenderloin has come a long way and, for me, I think is going the right [direction].”
The next meeting will be held March 25 in the community room in the Tenderloin Police Station at 301 Eddy St. in San Francisco.