Homes at the Potrero Terrace public housing complex near 25th and Connecticut streets on Sept. 17, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

S.F. gun violence surge puts criminal justice system in the spotlight

A recent surge in San Francisco gun violence has critics asking why The City’s criminal justice system is failing its residents. Those seeking answers have resorted to the usual finger pointing and recrimination, while substantive solutions remain elusive.

The discussion was amplified this week after a pair of shootings claimed the lives of two older men, and seriously injured a third, in rapid succession on Potrero Hill last weekend. The growing chorus of detractors are holding the incidents up as the latest example of a justice system in crisis.

The back-to-back shootings last Saturday — by alleged gunman Robert Newt, 32, who remains at large as of Thursday — are being seized on by critics of District Attorney Chesa Boudin, as well as those who are concerned about the rising prevalence of untraceable firearms known as “ghost guns.”

While overall crime is down in San Francisco, the shootings are part of a wave of gun violence that started earlier than usual this year and has far surpassed numbers from recent years. So far in 2021, 87 people have been shot in The City, compared to 35 at this point in 2020 and the previous five-year high of 68 in 2017, police data shows.

For critics of The City’s progressive prosecutor, the latest shootings are the most recent example of Boudin declining to charge someone who went on to be accused of another, more serious crime. About three weeks before the homicides, Newt had been arrested and released without being charged after police say they found a rifle without a traceable serial number in a vehicle he was driving.

“When Mr. Newt was stopped and had an assault weapon on him he should have been in jail,” said Lt. Tracy McCray, vice president of the San Francisco Police Officers Association. “If he would have been in jail, then you wouldn’t have had those three people shot and two people dying.”

Supervisor Catherine Stefani, meanwhile, said the case shows why ghost guns need to be taken off the streets. The firearms, which can be easily ordered online by anyone, including people who are prohibited from possessing a gun, have increasingly turned up at shooting scenes and homicides in San Francisco and have drawn national attention with recent actions from President Joe Biden.

Among the charges police booked Newt on in the earlier case was being a felon in possession of a firearm.

“This is exactly why I introduced legislation to ban the sale of unserialized ghost guns in San Francisco,” tweeted Stefani. “Because we have seen the havoc they wreak on our communities and how easy it is for prohibited persons to obtain ghost guns, putting the public at great risk.”

District Attorney Chesa Boudin, shown here in 2020, is under increasing scrutiny for his handling of gun crimes in San Francisco. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Boudin’s explanation

Boudin stands by his decision not to initially file charges against Newt in the earlier case. At a Police Commission meeting on Wednesday, he suggested police dropped the ball on processing forensic evidence that could have resulted in his office filing charges against Newt.

In his recent brush with the law, police stopped Newt for a traffic violation on April 21 and found the ghost gun. He was allegedly driving a vehicle that was wanted in connection with a shooting last month in the Bayview that involved more than 30 gunshots being fired.

When the District Attorney’s Office decided not to prosecute the case against him the following day, Boudin said a veteran assistant district attorney in his office asked police to obtain DNA or fingerprint evidence proving Newt handled the gun.

Prosecutors say the unserialized AR-15 style rifle was found inside a duffle bag in the backseat of a vehicle that did not belong to Newt and to which other individuals had access. Newt also did not match the description of the suspect in the earlier shooting.

“There was nothing tying him to the gun that was found in the car other than the fact that he was in the car with a ghost gun, that’s it,” Boudin said. “That is not enough for us to be able to prosecute a case successfully.”

A tight deadline for charging suspects

Under California law, prosecutors only have 48 hours from an arrest to decide whether to charge a person. While police say the expected turnaround for processing DNA evidence is about two weeks, Boudin said his office has not received any forensic evidence in the gun case against Newt nearly a month later. Boudin questioned whether the inspector on the case ever even submitted the request to the Crime Lab.

“I don’t know where along the line things get delayed but it is very rare for us to get DNA results faster than six weeks — often we never get them at all,” Boudin said. “And tragically that’s what happened here. We asked for DNA, we never got it and now we have got two murders on our hands.”

Boudin said the case is just one of about 100 where his office has requested DNA evidence and has not received it. His office is planning to share a list of those cases with police to figure out what went wrong.

“We are looking forward to getting that list and seeing what the issue was on those particular cases,” Scott said. The chief said he has been working with the district attorney to put measures in place to ensure gun cases are not discharged pending further investigation.

The Police Commission plans to further explore the issue at a later date.

A leasing office building at the Potrero Terrace public housing complex near 25th and Connecticut streets on Sept. 17, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

The deadly results

Between all this, the shootings left two men dead — Darryl Haynes, 61, and Randy Armstrong, 54 — and a third recovering from life-threatening injuries.

Uzuri Pease-Greene, a Potrero Hill community advocate who runs a nonprofit in the area, said she knew Armstrong closely and was familiar with the others.

Pease-Greene said Armstrong grew up in Potrero Hill public housing and regularly returned to hang out in the neighborhood. He had more recently found a stable home living in a single-room occupancy unit along Market Street after staying at a Navigation Center. She remembered how Armstrong would care for youth and older people in the neighborhood with random acts of kindness “that would warm your heart.”

“There’s some people who live their life and you just know I’m going to get a phone call,” Pease-Greene said. “That’s not how he lived his life. He wasn’t out there shooting at people and people shooting back at him. You wouldn’t associate him with getting shot.”

She viewed the other two victims similarly.

“These are older guys,” Pease-Greene said. “I don’t think that’s how they lived their lives, either.”

Surge in shootings

The shootings were the latest in what is shaping up to be a bad year for gun violence in San Francisco that has been centered around Bayview Hunters-Point and its surrounding neighborhoods. Bayview Station has recorded 20 shooting incidents so far this year compared to 13 last year. The station’s numbers are rivaled most closely by Mission Station — where police have 14 shootings in 2021 compared to 5 at this point in 2020.

Former Bayview public housing Officer Shante Williams said the recent shootings have made the neighborhood sound “like a war zone.”

“Our community is screaming for our DA to do something,” said Williams, a member of the police union’s board. “Letting people out to re-offend and do worse crimes than they were arrested for… it hurts the heart.”

Williams said summer is usually when the shooting starts picking up. “Summer has definitely started early,” he said.

But Pease-Greene said the issues that lead to gun violence are more complex than just the district attorney declining to file charges — or the prevalence of ghost guns. As she put it, “They said that about the last damn district attorney.”

Pease-Greene said the solution begins with more services and funding for youth coming out of foster care or juvenile hall.

“Everybody wants to place blame, but we can’t just place blame on the district attorney,” Pease-Greene said, citing gaps in homeless and drug services. “Everybody needs to start being held accountable for the work they are supposed to do.”

mbarba@sfexaminer.com

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