The mean streets of San Francisco 

click to enlarge Some of the juvenile weaponry on display at San Francisco’s Westpoint housing project. - COURTESY OF ALLEN NANCE
  • Courtesy of Allen Nance
  • Some of the juvenile weaponry on display at San Francisco’s Westpoint housing project.

When probation officers from Chicago are concerned about the level of violence in your city, it’s time to pay attention.

Chief Juvenile Probation Officer Bill Siffermann and Assistant Chief Allen Nance both came to San Francisco eight years ago after careers in the probation department of Cook County, which includes Chicago. While they never suggested that officers in Chicago carry guns, that’s an option they are exploring for the six officers in our Juvenile Probation Department’s serious-offender unit.

The prospect of probation officers with guns isn’t sitting well with certain folks here in the city of St. Francis. Supervisor John Avalos wrote a letter to Siffermann on Dec. 31 saying, “I find it hard to believe that bringing more guns into this city will improve the efforts of your staff.” He wants more support for the notion that it would make officers safer.

While Siffermann has the final say on whether to give officers guns, he is looking into any and all options to make officers safer and is working with stakeholders to make the process transparent. The Juvenile Probation Commission will hear a presentation on safety-enhancing measures for officers April 10 and a committee of the Board of Supervisors will take up the subject May 2.

At a preliminary hearing at the commission Jan. 9, Mia Shackelford, chairwoman of the Youth Commission, echoed a number of other speakers who opposed arming officers.

“The relationship between the probation officers and the youth needs to be one of guidance,” she said.  

When I posed that argument to Siffermann, he explained that the actual job of his officers is to enforce court orders, not just be social workers.

“I don’t believe that they fully understand the threat of harm to the officers’ safety that is out there. We have the power to arrest and detain. We have handcuffs, radios and vests but no arms.”

According to Nance, juvenile probation departments in Marin, San Mateo, Sacramento, Los Angeles, San Diego and even Siskiyou counties arm at least some officers who deal with violent juveniles. Statewide, 46 of 59 adult probation departments have an armed unit, including San Francisco’s adult department.

But what has changed in The City that warrants a higher level of security for officers? For one thing, a seemingly greater access to guns by teenagers, though no one could tell me why that is the case. “These days, it is not uncommon for a 13-, 14-, 15-year-old to be found in possession of a firearm,” Nance said.

Then there is a heightened disregard for authority. “These kids are different from when I started 43 years ago when it was stealing hubcaps, riding in stolen cars and shoplifting,” Siffermann said. “The complexities that the kids present and trauma that they’ve been exposed to make it more difficult.”

For the half-dozen officers who deal with the 30 to 40 most troubled probationers, who can be up to 25 years old, the guns seem to be a welcome idea. The union that represents probation officers says members “are gravely concerned about how increasingly exposed they have become to significant risk and harm.”

I asked Nance if the current situation here was worse than Chicago when he left in 2005. “There are parts of Chicago that were more dangerous than any part of S.F. back in 2005,” Nance said. “But the concentration of the concern here, both geographically and by the numbers, it is much more challenging.”

The same might be said for our “stakeholders” who are opposed to arming officers.

Melissa Griffin’s column runs each Thursday and Sunday. She also appears Mondays in “Mornings with Melissa” at  6:45 a.m. on KPIX (Ch. 5). Email her at mgriffin@sfexaminer.com.

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Melissa Griffin

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