Ending violence outside nightclubs

Examiner readers who follow the popular daily Police Blotter feature are well aware that drunken violence outside of nightclubs has become a regular late-night happening, particularly in the North Beach and downtown areas.

Within a one-quarter-mile radius of a club at 447 Broadway, in a single month there were 13 assaults, one drug offense, seven thefts, 14 vandalisms and seven robberies.

Near a club at 181 Eddy St., police logged 69 assaults, 284 drug offenses, 121 thefts, 11 acts of vandalism and 23 robberies.

That is a lot of concentrated damage, and it gets worse. No fewer than four of The City’s 98 homicides last year were related to nightclub incidents, and 15 percent of assaults in 2007 occurred after disputes either within or just outside of nightclubs. Large groups of intoxicated club-goers looking for trouble on entertainment district sidewalks at closing time are a clear and present danger to the public, the police and themselves.

A new anti-loitering law sponsored by Mayor Gavin Newsom and Supervisor Sophie Maxwell would allow police to issue citations to anyone standing within 10 feet of a nightclub entrance for more than three minutes between 9 p.m. and 3 a.m. The first draft would have made violations a misdemeanor with fines of $50 to $500.

But the Board of Supervisors City Operations and Neighborhood Services Committee reduced first offenses to a ticket infraction. Repeat offenders still could be charged with a misdemeanor and fined. The anti-loitering bill must be passed in committee sometime in July before going up for a final vote by the full Board of Supervisors.

Some people might think a law against nightclub curbside loitering for more than three minutes seems like too much of a Big Brother restriction of individual behavior in free-spirited San Francisco. Perhaps, mistakenly, they visualize police officers required to stand around looking at their watches until the grace period ends and they can start writing tickets.

But the law would not work that way. Making last-call loitering illegal simply gives police an effective tool for what to do next after telling a rowdy crowd to “move on.” If loiterers comply by dispersing, a potentially bloody situation is defused. If the crowd at first ignores a dispersal order, the sight of officers collecting identifications in preparation to issue citations and repeat-offender fines is likely to motivate surly drinkers to scatter.

For whatever reasons, “some shootings, some stabbings, some actual murder incidents” can be increasingly predicted in and around certain nightclubs, according to Kevin Ryan, the director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice. Police need better tools to help push back this rising threat, and a targeted anti-loitering prohibition looks as if it would help.

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