Pleas from residents for ramped-up security measures at the Ping Yuen housing complex in Chinatown might seem strange considering that it is traditionally one of San Francisco's safest projects, but recent trends seem to tell a different story.
In the five buildings comprising Ping Yuen, a 433-unit complex along Pacific Avenue, there were 859 reported crimes last year. That was a 28 percent increase from 2013 and a higher number than any other Housing Authority property.
Police Department and Housing Authority officials are using the new statistics, recently released by the SFPD's Crime Analysis Unit, as a rationale for assigning four police officers full-time to Ping Yuen, along with installing 50 security cameras throughout the projects.
The dedicated officers and cameras had been requested by Ping Yuen residents for months, said Capt. David Lazar of the Central Police Station.
“From the day I got to Central station, I was hearing people talk about crime happening that was unreported, that elderly people were in fear because they didn't want to report their neighbors,” Lazar told The San Francisco Examiner. “The community came together to say that just like other housing developments across The City, the Ping should have their share of officers.”
Two officers started working at and around Ping Yuen on Feb. 20, and two additional officers joined them on the beat on Saturday. They are the first Police Department employees to be assigned specifically to one public-housing project. Other public-housing projects in the southeastern part of The City and the Western Addition have a team of officers traveling from site to site, adjusting to situations on an as-needed basis.
The four officers cost police about $525,000 per year, Officer Albie Esparza said. The 50 cameras, which will be installed at Ping Yuen within the next few weeks, will cost $220,000 for the first two years, with an option to extend the contract for three more years, according to the Housing Authority.
As far as the rise in reported crimes, the numbers included 182 larcenies, 132 thefts from locked vehicles, 67 burglaries, 43 robberies, 78 cases of fraud and embezzlement, 73 of malicious mischief, 19 of forgery and counterfeit, and 21 of disorderly conduct. There were also five Muni offenses, two juvenile offenses and one liquor law violation.
At the same time, Ping Yuen last year had fewer reported cases of the most serious crimes than other housing projects — zero homicides and one rape. The Hunters Point, Hunters View and Westbrook projects had four homicides and two rapes.
“Of course, homicide, rape, robbery, those kinds of things are extremely serious, so I guess we have a little less of that at Ping Yuen. But again, any criminal activity is of concern for us,” Housing Authority Executive Director Barbara Smith told The Examiner. “I wouldn't want to pick one over the other as to where safety is more important.”
Ping Yuen is not without some violent crime. On March 7, for instance, a 25-year-old resident was reportedly walking just outside the complex in the 600 block of Pacific Avenue when he began arguing with a man with a gun who fired at him and fled. The resident was struck. As of last week, no arrest was reported and the victim was in serious but stable condition.
The incident “reinforces the point that we need to have coverage in the Ping Yuen,” Lazar said. “We need to provide a sense of security and safety among the residents that have been there.”
A UNIQUE HOUSING COMPLEX
Ping Yuen is unlike other properties run by the Housing Authority. The first building opened in 1955 and was geared toward housing the immigrant community in Chinatown. Its name, meaning “tranquil garden,” was given by community advocates at the time.
But the Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibits discrimination in renting and housing transactions based on demographics like race. So in the 1980s, some non-Asian residents in The City's housing system began requesting Ping Yuen, believing the site to be relatively safe. Tensions flared as some elderly Asians and newer immigrants living in the complex felt uneasy with the new, more mixed population. Those feelings have diminished, but residual concerns remain.
Teresa Lee, 48, is a former Ping Yuen resident who is now the property manager at the Westside Courts. Such race-based tensions might still exist among “a good portion of the residents,” she told The Examiner.
“I think it's more dependent on how open they are to trying to communicate to their neighbors,” Lee said. “For people who have lived there for a while and have neighbors of different races who have actually made an attempt to communicate with them and to get to know them over a period of time, that fear is decreased or they don't have that fear.”
WORKING THE BEAT
Officers Mark Milligan and Tina To might be new to their Ping Yuen beat, but they already have established a routine.
On a recent afternoon, the duo started their shift on the pebbled roof of 711 Pacific Ave., one of the five Ping Yuen buildings, looking for vagrants. They snaked their way down urine-stained staircases and across balconies, scouring the various areas for suspicious individuals.
“Having access to the building is good because we can hang out on the roof where people can't easily spot us,” Milligan, 43, said as he stood on the sixth-floor balcony watching a man outside the red metal front gates holding two plastic bags. “You see a guy delivering food, like takeout. You more or less look for the guy that is just hanging out, knocking on random doors.”
Since their new assignments began, Milligan and To, 32, who have each been with the Police Department for eight years, say they have not run into many major issues.
“Our first day here, there were people out here on the courtyard drinking and they saw us walking around every day and they found another spot,” Milligan said. “It wasn't like we had to roust them out or anything.”
Despite higher rates of crime reporting, some residents remain reluctant to talk about the topic.
Chang Jok Lee, Teresa Lee's mother and the president of the Ping Yuen Residents Improvement Association, spoke at length at Milligan's and To's initial meeting about the benefits of having the assigned officers. But she was reluctant to comment recently when asked by The Examiner about safety issues at the site.
“I think most residents are afraid of retaliation, so we get a lot of third-party information,” To said.
Meanwhile, Paul Yuen, 67, a resident of Ping Yuen for the past eight years, said in Cantonese, “I have more peace of mind” since the officers have been on duty.
“If we get better elevators and cameras and with the police officers,” he said, “then everything, all the problems here, should be fixed.”