Thursday, August 9, 2007

Notes from the Kamala Harris Visit

Lower Polk Neighbors and Middle Polk Neighborhood Association hosted San Francisco DA Kamala Harris at a joint meeting at the Holiday Inn on Van Ness yesterday. The meeting was attended by about 170 community members, three police officers and members of Kamala's staff, including Chief Assistant DA Russ Giuntini, and 2 Assistant DAs and community liaisons for Polk - Sanaz Nikaein and Nathan Quigley.

Neighborhood's Top Concerns - Ms. Harris focused her opening remarks on the three top concerns she has heard from these groups in previous meetings: prostitution, drug dealing and violent crime. Regarding prostitution she said, "Where it occurs we also see neighborhoods being victimized by other crimes." The lowest level of crimes may not be the most serious, but they impact the most people and need to be addressed as a priority.

Ms. Harris praised the community for turning out, saying that she was there to listen because the community had organized and is making itself heard.

New Surveillance Equipment - In response to communications with theses groups, Ms. Harris had members of the DA's Office walking the neighborhoods and working with police to find solutions. The Chief Assistant DA and police representatives went to the Justice Department for assistance and received high-tech surveillance equipment to help them gather better evidence and attain more convictions.

Stay Away Orders Strengthened - When someone is convicted of a crime, the DA can ask for a stay away order that prohibits the person from returning to the neighborhood where they committed the crime. These orders have new teeth. Violators now face mandatory jail time for violating the order - 30 days for the first violation, 60 for the second, and 90 days for the third. Additionally, Sheriff Mike Hennesy has agreed that these violations will no longer be "cited out" (taken to booking and released.) Further, these orders used to be for particular corners and have been expanded to cover as much as a ten block radius.

Changes to Drug Court - Drug dealers are no longer routed to drug court. Drug court is reserved for addicts, who committed crimes to support their habit, with an eye toward relieving their dependency and reducing crime.

Dealer Convictions Up from 56%- 74%.

Increase in Gun Use in Homicides from 60% in 2001 to 85% in 2006

When Ms. Harris began as DA there was no gun policy in San Francisco. She established mandatory minimum jail time for convictions of crimes that involved the use of a gun.

When the DA's office gets an arrest with witnesses, they have an excellent conviction rate - 90% for gun crimes. However, witnesses aren't coming forward. There is a no-snitching social phenomenon whereby witnesses are not directly threatened by the criminal, but there is a social stigma associated with cooperating with law enforcement.

Ms. Harris opened up the floor for questions.

Homeless and Crime - Community members had the following to relate or ask about problems with the Homeless.

  • In the last two weeks there has been a large influx of homeless who were cleared out of Golden Gate Park.
  • The Homeless often work for drug dealers as look outs or carriers.

Ms. Harris responded that homelessness is not a crime, but that someone who is homeless who commits a crime will be treated like any other criminal. The Community Justice Center should help. The Center, scheduled to be functioning by January, is modeled on the Manhattan Community Court that helped alleviate homelessness in New York by combining social services with criminal justice.

Other community members expressed their exasperation with crime and city responsiveness -

  • The City is experiencing a crack epidemic as critical as the aids epidemic and needs to be addressed by all City departments working together instead of blaming one another.
  • A number of instances of slow police response were reported.

Ms. Harris responded that there are subsets of the epidemic that require different solutions. Not to excuse the police response, but we are short 600 police officers.

The DA had to leave to attend a memorial. Chief Assistant DA Russ Giuntini took over the remaining question and answer period. Mr. Jenkins worked with Ms. Harris in Alameda.

Coming into the job he knew that San Francisco's drug policy was laughable. It was policy to allow criminals to plead to an accessory offense which would have no impact on subsequent drug offenses. They now have to plead to the offense they committed, and with the second offense they will do jail time.

A law Mr. Giuntini introduced in Oakland regarding taking away the cars of drug and prostitution clients was recently thrown out, but the ruling suggested that legislative option to pursue the same end is still open. He is looking at impounding the clients cars for 30 days instead, making it an expensive proposition to buy or solicit. Mr. Giuntini wants to change the perception among drug dealers in other cities that San Francisco is the place to do business.

A man related how he had been trying to get an arrest made in a violent assault that had been video taped and had witnesses, but so far had not had any success. Mr. Giuntini gave the man his phone number and said he would help get attention for the case.

A few audience members wanted to know why can't police use force like the police in New York and make the criminals more afraid of them. Mr. Giuntini replied that concern for civil rights, and not the DA, was keeping the police from using strong-arm tactics. We have to enable officers to make good cases and ask the community to come forward as witnesses.

The DA's office is starting a program similar to citizen ride-along programs occasionally operated by the police. Citizens will follow a case through the DA's office from receipt through prosecution.

Two people said that since they are transgendered they are not taken seriously by the police, that there was sensitivity training about two years ago for the force and things were much better for six months, but have gotten worse since.

A man asked what kind of confidentiality we have if we phone in a report of a crime. Mr. Giuntini said that your information is on a report that the defense may see. There is not a great deal of retaliation against witnesses, it is more of a problem in other neighborhoods.

Muggings are up - Mr. Giuntini confirmed that it does seem that robberies are up. When narcotics are in short supply, muggings go up.

No comments: