A controversial sit-lie ordinance proposed in San Francisco received a public airing once again tonight as the city’s Police Commission debated the issue of enforcement and who would be targeted.
The ordinance, proposed by Police Chief George Gascon and introduced last week at the Board of Supervisors by Mayor Gavin Newsom, would make it unlawful to sit or lie on a public sidewalk between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m.
Exceptions would be made for medical emergencies, permitted demonstrations, persons in wheelchairs and babies in strollers, and people standing in line for goods or services.
Citations would be issued only after a warning. Further violations could result in jail time.
Homeless advocates have expressed concern the law would criminalize homelessness and be used as a tool to push them out of neighborhoods.
Police have said they are responding to complaints from business owners and residents, particularly in the Upper Haight neighborhood, about a certain group of “street thugs” who are blocking sidewalk access.
“Our goal with this ordinance is not to cite everyone, it’s to change behavior,” Assistant Chief Kevin Cashman told the commission tonight.
Police claim current laws on the books often need a third party complaint in order to enforce them; and that complainants worry about being retaliated against. Small business owners are also hesitant about having to close their shops in order to testify in court, police say.
The current laws also require prosecutors to prove willful intent to obstruct, while the proposed ordinance would cover the simple act alone.
Similar laws have been enacted in other cities, including Santa Cruz.
Cashman insisted police would receive extensive training and would take “a common-sense approach to it.”
Police Capt. Teresa Barrett, whose district includes the Haight, said the sit-lie ordinance arose out of a series of community meetings late last year, when shop owners and residents “started to see a trend that they had not seen for many years in the Haight.”
Barrett said groups of young people would stand in the middle of the sidewalk with dogs or shopping carts and refused to move away when asked. People were threatened, assaulted and spit upon, she said.
Barrett emphasized that the majority of people who sit on Haight Street sidewalks, when asked to move, “are very cordial.”
But “that 10 percent” do not, she said.
“I really think that the way we got here was the community, and just, people fed up with things,” Barrett said.
Commissioner Petra DeJesus, who called tonight’s hearing and expressed concern about how the proposed law would be enforced, said she would want to see statistics about how many calls police actually receive for “that 10 percent,” in order to enact a “draconian law.”
“I would say it’s an issue just about every night, and on the weekends,” said Barrett, but she agreed to compile those stats.
An ACLU representative at tonight’s meeting warned the law would “lead to arbitrary enforcement.”
“It is criminalizing innocent conduct to expand police discretion,” said ACLU of Northern California legal director Alan Schlosser.
Schlosser added that the ordinance would bring “a host of legal problems” and was a “backward step” and an “overbroad law.”
The issue is still yet to be decided by the Board of Supervisors, which had a general hearing on the proposal on March 1, before the specific measure was introduced by Newsom. The measure has not yet been heard in committee.