Police saturation zone mystery

Some unarguably positive statements can be said about the new police-saturation “zone strategy,” which concentrated officers into the five San Francisco areas where the greatest number of violent crimes were committed in recent years — Bayview, Hunters Point, the Mission, the Western Addition and the Tenderloin.

Between February and August of 2008 — the first six months of the strategy — within those five zones, there were 35 percent fewer homicides than the previous year and police seized more than 100 guns. Nonfatal shootings in the high-crime zones dropped 38 percent from 2007.

These are encouraging numbers indeed, and our Police Department is to be commended for taking some action to lower The City’s unacceptably high level of homicides and violent crimes. Certainly, new police strategies must be tried here, when The City’s 98 homicides of 2007 comprised its bloodiest year in more than a decade.

However, these six-month crime-suppression statistics leave some significant questions unanswered. For one, there was a measurable increase in citywide crime outside the neighborhoods covered by zone enforcement saturation. Outside of those five zones there were 27 homicides in 2008 as compared with 21 during the same six months of 2007. Shootings were also slightly up, with 43 recorded this year and 40 in 2007.

Perhaps even more disturbing is that one of the strategy’s targeted high-crime zones — the Mission — has suffered an outbreak of eight slayings in the past few weeks. And, overall, there seems to be citywide homicide spike. In the approximately 10 weeks after the report period, San Francisco tallied 18 homicides that account for more than one-fifth of this year’s 81 slayings. After August 2007, there were 34 homicides, making up one-third of last year’s killings.

It is hard to be sure what these seemingly contradictory trends actually mean. With The City’s homicide rate continuing to climb, the zone strategy could have simply pushed some of the gun violence into other neighborhoods — at least temporarily. As street homicides returned to the saturated Mission zone this fall, it is possible that shooters no longer worrying about the increased police presence.

The reasonable conclusion appears to be that this opening phase of high-crime zone enforcement effort is simply too soon for understanding what the long-term results will prove to be. But so far there is enough encouraging news to show that the program must be continued — although the SFPD must be open to fine-tuning its patrol concentrations if patterns of violence shift.

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