Supervisors consider sidewalk policing as public debate heats up

SF Public Press
 — May 11 2010 - 5:34pm
The broadest debate to date on Mayor Gavin Newsom’s proposal to criminalize the act of sitting or lying on the city’s public sidewalks landed in City Hall Monday.
 
The controversy centers around how and if civility could be legislated, and what is the most effective way to curb antisocial behavior while maintaining the basic rights of the city’s residents.
 
There was anything but consensus on the issue — either in the crowd that amassed or among city leaders.
 

“What we are really talking about here is civility on our sidewalks,” said Supervisor Michela Alioto-Pier, a supporter of the measure.

“What is the conduct we are trying to address in this legislation?” Supervisor David Campos wondered aloud.
 
And so it went, the two sides talking past each other so profoundly that at times it was difficult to remember that they were addressing the same issue. This is what the supervisors grappled with as they heard official testimony from the mayor’s office, district attorney’s office, the Planning Commission and the Police Department.
 

Advocates on both sides packed the Board of Supervisors’ chamber to capacity with many waiting in the hall. Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi began the meeting by holding up what he said was the largest stack of comment request cards that he had seen in a Public Safety Committee hearing.

“We have over 30 laws on the books to address the behaviors that you have identified,” asserted Mirkarimi.
 

After more than six hours of testimony by various city officials and comments from dozens of San Franciscans, the committee voted unanimously to delay action on the issue for two weeks.

Different views of street life

Before the meeting opponents of the measure held a rally and press conference outside City Hall. 
 
“People across the city fervently believe in the right to peaceable assembly,” said Stand Against Sit Lie organizer Andy Blue, as a brass band whipped up a cacophony of music among the energized crowd of people marked by “No on Sit Lie” stickers.
 
Meanwhile proponents of the measure, recently re-branded “civil sidewalks,” gathered in the chambers donning stickers of their own, and complaining about drugs, defecation, and bands of thugs in their neighborhoods and in front of their businesses.
 
In the course of the meeting, any clarity about how to craft such legislation eroded. Representatives of the Police Department said that certain groups, such as day laborers, were not the intended focus of the law. At the same time, they asserted that the law would be equally enforced.
 
Police department representatives insisted that they need the law because the existing sidewalk obstruction ordinance is complaint-driven. But later, under questioning, they said that an officer can enforce the existing obstruction ordinance without complaint or wittiness, provided the officer sees the violation.

Looking for legal leverage

The proposed ordinance, one of the most broadly written laws of its type, would prohibit sitting or lying on sidewalks citywide, from the hours of 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Violators would be warned and asked to move along, but would face criminal, not civil, penalties for refusing the order once warned.
 
Most of the 60 cities across the country that have enacted such laws limit the geographic scope of the law, while the proposed San Francisco measure would be citywide. Courts across the nation have upheld some sit-lie measures, while striking down others, depending on their scope and implementation.
 
“It is ultimately how the law is enforced that will determine its constitutionality,” said Supervisor David Campos, a constitutional lawyer.
 
Campos joined supervisors David Chiu, Chris Daly and Mirkarimi in saying that the real solution to the problem was better social services and a return to community policing, in which officers are assigned to specific neighborhoods to “walk the beat” in foot patrols.
 
The proposed ordinance has to clear the Public Safety Committee before it can be considered by the full Board of Supervisors. But that vote, which is likely to strike down the proposal, may not be the end of the issue.
 
“The mayor has said if this is rejected it will go to the ballot, and it can with his signature,” said Daly, an outspoken opponent of the legislation. He said the city was becoming immersed in a culture war on the streets over this issue.
 
The debate has come before San Francisco voters before, in the form of 1994’s Proposition M. That ballot issue, part of then-mayor Frank Jordan’s “Matrix” program, ultimately failed.
 
See also:
San Francisco Bay Guardian: “Sit-lie proponents criticize their allies

San Francisco Chronicle: “Moderates must stand up to rhetoric on sit/lie

CORRECTION 6/30/10: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of organizer Andy Blue.