Friday, April 22, 2011

Knee-Jerk Responses vs. Smarter Safety Policies

By David Onek, originally posted on Calitics, April 22, 2011.

[David Onek is a candidate for District Attorney of San Francisco.  David is a leading expert on criminal and juvenile justice, with experience in policy-making, academia and government.  As the article below demonstrates, he has developed a thoughtful, progressive approach to criminal justice and public safety issues.  David is currently a Senior Fellow at the Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice.  He is a former San Francisco Police Commissioner and also served in Mayor Gavin Newsom’s Office of Criminal Justice.  Learn more about David and his candidacy here.]

Last September, the San Francisco Police Department - under the command of former chief George Gascón - submitted a proposal responding to the uptick in violence outside a handful of San Francisco nightclubs.

The proposal was supposed to be heard this week by the city's Entertainment Commission, but Mayor Ed Lee appropriately delayed the hearing for more debate.

The violence outside of nightclubs is a serious problem that must be addressed in a thoughtful way. But the SFPD's flawed proposal is a knee-jerk response that will not make us safer and will violate our privacy rights. We need to understand why a city as progressive on policy as San Francisco is being offered flawed political solutions to serious public safety challenges.

A Plan Likely to Backfire

The SFPD proposal mandates venues to swipe patrons' identification cards and keep this personal information on record for subsequent police review and to place metal detectors at some venues with occupancy levels exceeding 100, among other requirements.

This proposal is extremely problematic on a number of levels - the first of which is that it will likely backfire. Most nightclub violence takes place outside, not inside the clubs. Creating bottlenecks and barriers to entry will have the effect of keeping more trouble outside. And creating an environment so unwelcoming that many law-abiding people will stay home or go to other cities, while some potential troublemakers will simply go to unregulated clubs, could make our streets more dangerous at night.

The police proposal has been rightly criticized by the California Music and Culture Association (CMAC), which is proposing more sensible reforms. The SFPD proposal has also come under fire from the American Civil Liberties Union, which has weighed in on very real First Amendment and privacy concerns. Choices of art and music venues often reflect private political and personal preferences; requiring that venues store patrons' identification information thus raises serious constitutional issues.

As the father of two young daughters, I don't make it out to clubs as much as I used to. But I know what a vital role nighttime venues play in our culture, our identity and our economy.

We don't want to put responsible club owners out of business with costly proposals that do not improve public safety. Instead, we should be working collaboratively with these responsible owners on real solutions, such as enhanced training of security personnel, improved lighting and better coordination with the SFPD. I also believe we should look more closely at the licensing status of clubs where crime patterns emerge - and be more aggressive about revoking the permits of those operators who don't provide a safe environment for their patrons and neighbors.

These are practical steps that would make us safer by targeting the problem clubs, not every venue, and they are steps that would not violate the First Amendment and privacy rights of people who patronize San Francisco's clubs.

A Political Proposal

But instead of practical solutions, the nightclub plan exemplifies the reactive "do something - do anything" mentality that so often creates "safety" policies that actually make us less safe. If it is adopted in anything like its current form, it will be yet another example of knee-jerk responses beating out thoughtful policies.

Our police chief at the time - George Gascón - was under pressure to "do something." But instead of a reasoned and collaborative solution, what was proposed was simply more politics. The public and the politicians demanded action - so the police proposed action even though their proposals would not make us safer, would violate our constitutional rights and would be tied up in the courts for years.

The best tool to create a safer community is not to violate the privacy rights of San Franciscans who contribute to our culture and economy by patronizing our clubs, but to enlist club owners and the broader community to work collaboratively with law enforcement to support a safer environment around the clubs.

We need to reduce the violence outside of nightclubs. But let's do so with thoughtful policies - not knee-jerk, political responses.

[Related posts:  Taking On Three Strikes Reform]


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