Property crime increases in S.F.’s J-Town, as police presence decreases

PropertyCrime_Web

VEHICLE BREAK-INS ­— City police report data supplied to www.crimemapping.com shows a map of vehicle break-ins around San Francisco’s Japan Center between June and October of this year (image for informational purposes only). courtesy of CrimeMapping.com

This year, the city of San Francisco as a whole has seen an increase in property crime, according to the San Francisco Police Department. Some San Francisco Japantown merchants said they have also noticed an increase in crime. With the holiday shopping season in full swing, crime is expected to increase as well.

“We’re historically at the lowest staffing level I’ve ever seen for both the city and station,” Cpt. Ann Mannix said at a meeting with the Japantown Economic Development and Marketing committee held on Nov. 14. Mannix is captain of the Northern Police Station, which serves a large block of San Francisco from the north of Market Street up to the Bay.

The Northern Station covers Japantown, Haight Ashbury, Fillmore and the Marina neighborhoods. “I used to come into these community meetings and ask what we can do for you, but now I come to ask about how you can help us.” The station, located at 1125 Fillmore St., is relatively close to Japantown, but is currently staffed with only 97 officers who handle more than 60,000 calls a year. According to Mannix, the station ideally needs 120 officers to allow for more proactive enforcement.

Deputy Chief Michael Biel told Japantown merchants at the meeting that additional funding for new hires was approved this year to hire 600 more police officers. “The training process takes approximately two years,” said Biel. “We expect to be back to full staffing sometime between 2014 to 2015.”

Police Presence Wanted
Several Japantown merchants and community members told the Nichi Bei Weekly they were concerned with safety in the neighborhood prior to the meeting. The JDEM group is comprised of San
 Francisco
 Japantown
 Merchants
 Association
 and
 Japantown
 Task 
Force members.

Ruby Hata, director of finance at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California, said she wanted the SFPD to bring back the foot patrol that used to cover Japantown. In the past, a pair of Sansei police officers patrolled the ethnic enclave.

Hata said she and the staff lock their office doors and keep an eye out for anyone who seems out of place walking into the center.

“We … fortunately haven’t had any incidents in the center,” she said. Overall, however, Hata said safety in Japantown is becoming an issue. “I used to lock up the center by
myself, but now I want a guy to do it … some of the women staff are scared to come out here too.”

“I know Japantown wants a foot beat — I want to give Japantown a foot beat,” Mannix said at the committee meeting. “But foot beats are a luxury item. You can usually find a lot of cops at the station doing paperwork. So, fortunately, you can get a lot cops to Japantown fairly quickly when something big happens, but it’s not enough to handle quality of life calls.” According to Mannix, the station has its hands full with basic staffing.

Without a foot patrol, though, Japantown has no permanent police presence while response times have become an issue.

Helen Ishida, who spoke on behalf of the Nichiren Buddhist Church of San Francisco, told the Nichi Bei Weekly that a homeless woman was found trespassing on church grounds multiple times last September. The church is often empty during weekdays, so Ishida did not know of the issue until a neighbor called her. According to Ishida, the woman was “splashing water on people passing by the church and shouting gibberish.” Ishida also said the woman was using the garden’s water to wash her clothes and using the garden as her bathroom.

Ishida said the response to initial calls to the police and the city’s mental health services were too slow and the woman had left the area by the time the city responded. When the city’s Homeless Outreach Team responded in time, the woman refused to accept their help, however. The police removed the homeless woman after the team called them. The homeless woman has yet to return to the church, according to Ishida.

For Nijiya Market, a supermarket located on Post and Webster streets, police response time has also been an issue. Kunitoshi Shinozaki, a store manager, said the store generally does not call the police for each instance of shoplifting, as they feel the response is too slow. “I’ve called the police before when a man was protesting Japan outside our store; it took them 30 to 40 minutes to get here and, by then, he was gone,” he said. While the market has also hired a security service, they cannot detain shoplifters for any extended period of time.

At the meeting, Richard Hashimoto, president of the Japantown Merchants Association, told Mannix that it once took 45 minutes for an officer to arrive when a security guard caught a shoplifter.

The department cannot aptly respond to many of these calls, Mannix said. “If someone is detained by security, it isn’t a priority call,” she said. “Unfortunately, it’s going to take more time to respond to those calls.”

Mannix said her resources for responding to calls regarding the chronically homeless are limited. For these cases, she asked the merchants to call the Homeless Outreach Team first to help find a more permanent solution rather than calling the police to enforce loitering laws.

The meeting also featured a presentation by Furlishous Wyatt, a business security specialist with San Francisco SAFE Inc. The nonprofit, Safety Awareness For Everyone, works with the city to provide safety tips for residents, shoppers and business owners. Wyatt advised merchants on preventative measures such as installing security camera, starting a local business watch group and instituting policies to deter shoplifting.

Wyatt told merchants they need to help the police help them by having clear surveillance camera footage readily available and to report all crimes to the police. “You have to let the police department know, the police won’t know about it if nobody reports it,” he said. “If it’s illegal, it should be reported. If you’re not sure it’s an emergency or not, just call 911.”

Shoplifting an Issue
Local merchants told the Nichi Bei Weekly that shoplifting has also become a concern.

For Ichiban Kan, a discount sundry good store, shoplifting is becoming a major issue. “We have shoplifting incidents almost every weekend,” Rumiko Tauber, the store manager, said. “And they’re getting more brazen about it.” According to Tauber, one of her employees once caught a shoplifter stuffing his bag with merchandise. He did not stop after being confronted. Another shoplifter threw a brick at an employee to fend him off while escaping.

For Daiso, another discount sundry goods store located below Ichiban Kan, the situation was no different. Yuriko Moody, the store manager, said the store has hired their own security firm for their store, but it had only helped so much.

“We hired our own security last May and it has helped,” said Moody. “But some shoplifters now know when the security is around so they just come outside of those times.”

Moody continued, even when their security catches someone, their options are limited. “The shoplifters know they aren’t going to be in big trouble,” she said. “Our security can’t detain shoplifters, we can only warn and ask them to leave.”

At the JEDM meeting, which was held in Hotel Tomo, in Japantown, Wyatt said merchants should assess what they want their security companies to accomplish, and refocus how to best use the security personnel.

“If you think your security company isn’t cutting it even after you talk with them, you might need to find a different firm,” he said.

Yasuaki Miura, of Super Mira supermarket, told the Nichi Bei Weekly he has a security camera to track shoplifters and criminals in his store.

“I can usually tell who is a shoplifter the moment they walk through the door, they’ll sneak to the back corner of the store and try to pocket something they grabbed at the front,” he said. “Some of the newer employees might not be able to identify them as quickly, though.”

Miura said he had footage of various shoplifters and has been successful in keeping some would be thieves out of his store. Wyatt said clear video footage helps deter and catch thieves, especially when convicting them in court.

Out on the Streets
Aside from thefts from businesses, however, auto burglaries, auto thefts and street robberies are also becoming an issue in Japantown.

Brandon Yanari, a member of Jiten Taiko which practices at the Buddhist Church of San Francisco, had his 1998 Honda Civic stolen in September near the corner of Sutter and Laguna streets. While his car was recovered, various electronic items he had left in the car were stolen.

“I was shocked that something like this would happen to me, especially so close to Japantown,” Yanari wrote in an e-mail to the Nichi Bei Weekly.

Auto theft and theft of auto burglaries has become another city-wide issue, Mannix said. Hashimoto also noted in an interview with the Nichi Bei Weekly that broken glass from the burglaries often litter the sidewalk on Geary Boulevard and the surrounding neighborhoods.

Both Mannix and Wyatt said that property crime — particularly of handheld electronic devices — in the entire city have increased in the past year.

“Don’t leave anything in your car. No thief just breaks into a car at random, they know something is in it,” Mannix said. The captain warned that would-be thieves will spot gym bags or a GPS mount as an opportunity and that car makes or models don’t really matter.

Aside from car break-ins, many thefts now involve iPhones and other smart devices, Wyatt added. “Criminals love Apple products,” he said. “All you need to do is a quick punch to the face and you grab (the iPhone) from them. After that, you can easily sell it to someone for $200 on the street. Same for MacBook Pros left in cars or a cafe table, these things are easy to steal.” Wyatt explained that, with the improving economy, more people are carrying expensive gadgets while police have yet to catch up with the corresponding increase in crime.

Wyatt said people should keep their iPhones hidden from view while walking in the street, and that includes their signature white headphones. He also said people should be aware of their surroundings and that listening to music or staring at a phone screen, in general, is a good way to be caught off guard by a criminal.

Aside from hiding handheld digital devices, Wyatt encouraged people to install antitheft apps. “Installing an app like Find My iPhone will help the police locate your phone and increase the odds of locating it within an hour of it being stolen,” he said. “If it’s not found, though, call your service provider and have them shut down service as soon as possible.”

Recently, a number of muggings have taken place in and around Japantown. In October of 2011, four men with a stun gun robbed a woman walking down Post Street of her iPhone and, more recently, on Oct. 20, two men robbed three people of their phones at gunpoint. In both cases, the police used a phone locator app to find the stolen phones and make arrests. Another mugging occurred on Sept. 11 this year near the intersection of Geary Boulevard and Laguna Street. The victim’s cash was stolen, and he was also shot in the leg; the SFPD said no arrests have been made for that case.

Even still, according to Mannix, the Northern Station’s jurisdiction is, by comparison, one of the less violent districts in the city. “Thankfully, we don’t see as much violent crime as the rest of the city,” she said at the meeting.

While more police officers are on the way, Wyatt and Mannix asked the Japantown community to work together in the interim to help protect themselves from crime and to stay vigilant.

For more information regarding personal and merchant crime prevention tips, call (415) 673-SAFE, e-mail info@sfsafe.org or visit www.sfsafe.org.To reach the San Francisco’s Northern Police District, call (415) 614-3400 or e-mail SFPDNorthernStation@sfgov.org. The San Francisco Northern Station Police Department also publishes a weekly newsletter for the community, to subscribe, e-mail SFPDNorthernStation@sfgov.org.

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