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Police could get increased power to disperse abortion clinic protesters

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A woman walks past the Planned Parenthood-San Francisco Health Center office on Valencia Street in the Mission District on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2018. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

A proposed amendment to The City’s Police Code could allow officers to respond more quickly to complaints of harassment and intimidation of clients at a Mission District Planned Parenthood clinic that for years has been a frequent target for anti-abortion protesters.

Current law requires police officers to provide a written warning before ordering protesters to disperse while also ensuring access to the reproductive health care facility.

The amendment, proposed by Supervisor Hillary Ronen, would allow police officers to order protesters who are in violation of city law prohibiting harassment within a 25-foot buffer zone around the Mission Street clinic to disperse after just a verbal warning.

The Board of Supervisors’ Public and Neighborhood Safety Committee is expected to vote on the change today, and if it is approved it will move before the full board on Sept. 18.

Historically, “buffer zone” laws prohibited any kind of first amendment activity — including picketing — from taking place within a certain distance of abortion providers. In San Francisco, 2013 legislation introduced by then-supervisor David Campos expanded that zone from 8 feet to 25 feet.

The following year, however, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Massachusetts’ 35-foot buffer zone around reproductive health clinics offering abortion services — a decision that trickled down to San Francisco.

“The City Attorney basically told us that our law was no longer valid. So, we amended the law to make it illegal to follow or harass a [person] within the 25-foot buffer zone,” said Ronen, who served as a legislative aide to Campos before replacing him as supervisor. “That law has been on books ever since it passed.”

But the anti-harassment law has proven difficult to enforce for police officers, whose hands are tied by bureaucratic processes balancing protections for the clinic’s clients against the protesters’ right to free speech.

The requirement to issue written warnings prevents officers from taking immediate enforcement actions in cases in which clients report harassment, and is also unique to police guidelines governing enforcement at abortion clinics.

“Usually in other First Amendment activities, say you have a climate protest, if these folks are blocking the street or chained together at Fourth or Market streets, a verbal warning is enough to issue a dispersal order. And if the order is not followed there can be an arrest,” said Ingleside Police Station Captain Jack Hart. “This particular section has an added requirement that a written notice is needed.”

According to Ronen, this requirement is “slowing [police] down.”

“It was making the enforcement of the law more difficult and less nimble and allowed protesters to continue to harass women within the buffer zone,” Ronen said.

Ronen said complaints increased after yellow paint marking the buffer zone on the sidewalk in front of the clinic and street signage educating protesters of the law were removed during recent streetscaping on Valencia Street. The increase also coincided with the recent change in presidential administration.

“We suspect these people are emboldened by President Trump and an increasingly anti-choice Supreme Court. It’s getting more extreme and scary and the protests are getting larger,” Ronen said. “We decided, in addition to repainting the zone and [replacing] the signage, we would change law so that police have an effective tool.”


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