Thoughts on Crime & Safety in San Francisco Coming out of the Pandemic...
An Open Letter to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors
This is a reproduction of a letter I sent to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors on March 23, 2021. The purpose of this letter is to raise awareness about the growing sentiment in San Francisco regarding rising violent crime and the implications for the future of the City as it emerges from the pandemic.
Dear San Francisco Board of Supervisors,
I'm writing today as a newly former resident of San Francisco who called the city home for over a decade. You may wonder why someone who is not your current constituent is spending their time reaching out to you. For starters, I still reside in the Bay Area and care very much about what happens in the City, given that it is the cultural heartbeat of the region. The decisions you make not only impact your constituents but have ripple effects far beyond the City's borders.
More importantly, though, I am writing because I am deeply concerned about the City's current state concerning out-of-control crime and how it negatively impacts S.F. residents and businesses (many who are my close friends).
During my time in San Francisco, I served as a Board Member of my local neighborhood organizations on Polk Street, working to improve the area to make it a safer, cleaner and more welcoming place.
You can imagine my horror then in learning about two recent incidents that took place along Polk Street: the brutal robbery of a 33-year-old Asian woman named Clarisse on Bush Street near Polk and the racially-motivated assault on an Asian man named Simon Lau at Clay and Polk. Not to mention the countless other senseless attacks on the San Francisco Asian community, which I am sure you are all aware of (and are probably losing sleep over), so I don't need to remind you again here.
Before you start defending yourself with the same excuses for the sorry state of the City (the pandemic, the lockdowns, the economic frustration, the same rising crime trends occurring across the country, etc.) I want to acknowledge that it has been a tough year, and I am sure none of you expected to lead San Francisco during a once-in-a-century pandemic.
The City did an excellent job at minimizing the lives lost to COVID-19, and the vaccine distribution effort so far has been impressive. You all and the Mayor's office and Department of Public Health deserve credit and applause for this.
But now, with the pandemic subsiding and things starting to open back up, you will not be able to hide behind the excuse of 'the pandemic' for failings in other areas. Let's start with the rampant hardcore drug use and accompanying homelessness crisis that has been raging on in the Tenderloin and SoMa long before the pandemic. This year already looks to be the worst year ever for drug overdose deaths – 135 already in 2021.
I've raised this question to you all in the past (to crickets) so I'll raise it again: why does San Francisco tolerate having a reputation as somewhere with such an apathetic attitude toward open hard drug use and drug dealing (which brings with it other dangers such as gang violence)?
I know many of your friends in the non-profit world would argue it is because the City should strive to be 'compassionate' and 'tolerant' of all lifestyles. In principle, I do not disagree with the aims of compassion and tolerance. Still, perhaps the reality is that being too tolerant is doing a disservice to San Francisco's long-standing reputation by enabling so many untimely and avoidable deaths.
There is nothing at all compassionate about the current state of the Tenderloin and other downtown areas.
'But drug addiction is a public health issue, not a criminal one' – I don't disagree with this either. Do I think someone who is addicted to drugs should be thrown in jail? No, but I think they should be compelled into treatment to get clean and get on with their lives.
I also believe that the City should stop tolerating open drug dealing (which is so blatant I'm surprised you aren't more embarrassed and ashamed about it).
While drug use in and of itself should not be treated as a criminal issue, the environments created by open drug use and dealing lead to circumstances that are more welcoming to all sorts of crime ranging from smash & grab burglaries to armed robbery and even homicide.
The City is sending a message to would-be criminals: 'hey, we don't care about the well-being of our neighborhoods so why should you?'
Now, do I really think you guys don't care about your neighborhoods? No, I think you do- I know, having interacted with Supervisor Peskin and Supervisor Stefani over the years that they genuinely care deeply about the neighborhoods they represent. And I know Supervisor Haney, who represents the most challenged neighborhoods in the entire City, goes out of his way to engage with the community and does his best to go to bat for his constituents.
But good intentions, and even supposedly good policy, can only get you so far (they may even backfire).
One only needs to look at the current District Attorney who, while he has a compelling narrative about his personal life story, uses San Francisco as a laboratory for unproven experiments in criminal justice reform. Using his high-profile position to elevate his voice into the national conversation about 'mass incarceration,' the City suffers as he refuses to prosecute repeat felons who end up inflicting harm and even death upon innocent San Franciscans.
This is not hyperbole or partisan political rhetoric – it is a fact. To try and argue otherwise is to gaslight the citizens of San Francisco into believing that they should have to tolerate an increasingly dangerous and violent city while the person elected to protect them is publicly working through his childhood trauma.
The reality is, there is no 'mass incarceration' problem in San Francisco. The DA often goes out of his way to tout how he reduced the jail numbers to historic lows so clearly the national trends do not apply here. While there are plenty of valid criticisms to make about the country's often inhumane carceral system, it is something that cannot be solved by San Francisco alone.
In fact, by not having a viable alternative to jail time for criminals who commit multiple violent felonies in the City, the DA and his supporters run the risk of turning off folks who would otherwise be open to thoughtful, rather than reckless, reforms.
Unfortunately, I sense that most San Franciscans are already at a breaking point concerning rampant crime. I decided to write this letter because I know there are many folks who are too afraid to speak out in fear of being 'canceled' or being perceived as uncompassionate.
San Francisco is a small city, and some people, especially those driven by naïve idealism, can be vicious and destructive in support of their pet causes.
Just look at the ongoing scandal with the San Francisco Board of Education where the Vice President of the Board, drunk on her power, repeatedly wrote hateful and racist comments about students and parents, all in the name of supposed social justice. She still refuses to step down and acknowledge the harm she has caused to the Asian community.
This letter is for victims of crimes in San Francisco and for everyone who wants to live in a safe and prosperous City.
It is for the small business owners who have had to put up with a year of lockdowns, many who had to shut their doors permanently and many others who have had their businesses smashed and burglarized.
It is for the Asian elders who are now too afraid to walk to the corner market just to get groceries after seeing their peers attacked and murdered over and over again.
It is for the hardworking men and women of the San Francisco Police Department who have been undermined and unappreciated not only by the District Attorney but even by some of you on the Board of Supervisors (which is extraordinarily shameful).
As an architect and urban planner by training, I've spent many years studying the rise and fall of cities- what makes great cities prosper and what makes cities fall.
When it comes to cities failing, a lack of safety and public trust is at the very top of the list. If you can't ensure a fundamental level of security for your citizens, nothing else really matters; you might as well call it quits.
I'm not saying this because I hope you fail – I don't, I want you all to succeed. But right now, I am afraid you are very close to failing unless something changes very quickly. My advice would be to put partisan politics aside, cut it out with the lofty feel-good rhetoric and start taking real bold action to turn the tide. Which of you is going to step up and act like the adult in the room?
Do you want to be remembered as the Board who presided over the demise of a once-great City? Or do you want to be recognized as the group that pulled the City out of the pandemic, making it even more prosperous than ever before? The choice is up to you.
If you are a resident or business owner in San Francisco and are concerned and frustrated about the rising violent crime in your neighborhood, I encourage you to please reach out to your local elected officials and make your voice heard:
District 1 Supervisor - Connie Chan firstname.lastname@example.org
District 2 Supervisor - Catherine Stefani email@example.com
District 3 Supervisor - Aaron Peskin firstname.lastname@example.org
District 4 Supervisor - Gordon Mar email@example.com
District 5 Supervisor - Dean Preston firstname.lastname@example.org
District 6 Supervisor - Matt Haney email@example.com
District 7 Supervisor - Myrna Melgar firstname.lastname@example.org
District 8 Supervisor - Rafael Mandelman email@example.com
District 9 Supervisor - Hillary Ronen firstname.lastname@example.org
District 10 Supervisor - Shamann Walton email@example.com
District 11 Supervisor - Ahsha Safaí firstname.lastname@example.org
San Francisco Mayor - London Breed email@example.com
San Francisco City Attorney - Dennis Herrera firstname.lastname@example.org
CA District 11 State Senator - Scott Wiener email@example.com
CA 17th District State Assemblymember - David Chiu firstname.lastname@example.org
CA 19th District State Assemblymember - Phil Ting email@example.com