S.F. police captain updates community on Japantown crime, homelessness


After San Francisco’s Japantown community members expressed increasing concern over the ethnic enclave’s safety since the new year, San Francisco Police Department Northern Station Captain Greg McEachern spoke at the Union Bank Community Room in the Japan Center East Mall Feb. 13. The meeting, organized by the Japantown Merchants Association, Japantown Business Watch Group and the Japantown Task Force, outlined trends regarding crime and the homeless population in Japantown and addressed concerns and observations that some 50 community members shared.

McEachern presented his thoughts and statistics alongside Richard Hashimoto, president of the merchants association.

Overall, the city saw less crime in January of this year than in 2013, McEachern said. He cited a drop of about 20 percent in violent and property crimes in the San Francisco. However, he noted that the decrease in crime isn’t necessarily a cause for celebration. “It’s January, it’s a colder month … crime trends tend to go up and down depending on tourism and events going on in the city.”

The captain identified four crimes of particular concern for the Japantown neighborhood: robberies, burglaries, auto break-ins and other general thefts.

In the month of January alone, McEachern’s Northern Station responded to 24 robberies, 78 burglaries, 285 auto break-ins and 185 other thefts throughout the Northern District. The Northern Station serves the Marina District down to Market Street, includes the Western Addition, the Palace of Fine Arts, the Fillmore District and Japantown.

McEachern mainly addressed the murder of David Gilford III in front of Pa‘ina Lounge and Restaurant on Post Street, the ongoing issue of car break-ins and homelessness.

Murder in Japantown
Gilford was shot to death at around 1:30 a.m., Dec. 29, 2013 after leaving a private party held at the restaurant. According to McEachern, the Modesto, Calif. resident had a “significant” arrest record and had recently been released from prison. “We’re very sure someone who was waiting for him to get out of prison found out he was at this party and came out and shot him,” McEachern said.

McEachern did not say that an arrest had been made in the case.

Since the murder, McEachern said he had met with Pa‘ina’s owner to discourage the restaurant from serving private parties involving the same people in the future. Furthermore, he said he is sending officers to check in on the establishment. “There was another private party three weeks after we met … it appeared that some of the same individuals at that private party were present when the homicide occurred,” McEachern said.

Nancy Gribler, Sundance Kabuki Cinemas executive vice president of marketing, said her company has also started enforcing nightly check-ins at 10:15 p.m. She said that Pa‘ina is operating on a permit that only allows live entertainment up until 10 p.m. According to Gribler, Pa‘ina often does not adhere to those hours.

Pa‘ina could not be reached for comment by press time.

Car Break-Ins
Car break-ins have recently become an ongoing issue for Japantown. Many local community members, especially merchants, have expressed concern over the frequent sighting of smashed glass along the sidewalk in and around the ethnic enclave. In January, nine cases took place along Geary Boulevard between Laguna and Fillmore streets alone, according to police data on CrimeMapping.com.

The nature of car break-ins has changed, the captain said. “For many years it was usually residents who kept things in their car and we had a random person who would walk up and down the streets,” he said. “We’re seeing much less of that now.” McEachern said thieves now drive around tourist-heavy neighborhoods such as Japantown, Davies Symphony Hall and the Marina. Thieves break into a parked car and quickly get away in their awaiting car.

However, there may have been a break in the case. McEachern said plain-clothes officers arrested two thieves — as they were breaking into a car Feb. 10 — after receiving a report of a break-in in Japantown. “As it turned out, they are responsible for 13 car break-ins that day. Five of them here in the Northern District, eight in the Southern,” McEachern said.

While the arrest may provide locals with some relief, McEachern said he and his officers will remain vigilant. “We also know that when one criminal element is put in jail, another one comes through,” he said.

McEachern said the police department will add stickers on parking meters Feb. 21 in the Japantown area to warn visitors not to leave any valuables in their cars.

Potential New Foot Beat
Moses Yasukochi, owner of Yasukochi’s Sweet Stop, asked why there aren’t any foot beats in Japantown. In the past, foot beats and a koban (police box) located on the Buchanan Street Mall served the ethnic enclave.

My intention is to put a beat back here, but we just don’t have the staffing. As soon as I do, you have my promise,” replied McEachern.

“I think having a beat is the best thing out there,” he said. “You can see the officers walking around and you can have a one-on-one contact with the officers.”

McEachern said the city had not trained to replace some 400 retiring officers four years ago. At the height of staffing, the Northern Station employed some 135 officers, according to McEachern, but is now staffed by 103. “When you lose 35 officers, there are certain categories you aren’t able to police,” he said. With the staffing shortfall, McEachern said the station prioritized patrol cars over foot-beats. At least one police car roams between Pacific Heights, Western Addition and Japantown.

McEachern said he hopes to hire another eight or nine officers in his station by late spring or summer of this year and reinstate footbeats in Japantown, Fillmore, Hayes Valley, and a second beat on Lower Polk Street. The Northern Station currently has one foot-beat on Polk Street.

Waves of Homelessness
Merchants also cited the homeless population as becoming an increasing nuisance for local businesses.

“The homeless come in waves,” Hashimoto said. “Whenever, (the police) clean out Civic Center, Fisherman’s Wharf or Golden Gate Park, they all seem to congregate here (in Japantown) before they disperse, but we have noticed an increase.”

Recently, Sim Seiki, owner of the Seiki-Lee building on the corner of Post and Laguna streets, said he had an “unusual problem.”

“One time (a homeless man) came in our bathroom and made a mess,” he said. “After that, I put the bathroom under lock and key.” As a result, the homeless person defecated in the lobby in retaliation, Seiki said.

Kathy Nelson, director of the Kabuki Springs and Spa, said she too has to clean up excrement from in front of her business. “It’s pretty disgusting,” she said.

Nelson said a growing number of homeless sit at the Fillmore Street bus stops above the Geary Boulevard underpass. Nelson said the homeless harass her employees and patrons as they come and go from her business. “I understand they’re technically not committing a crime, but it is very unpleasant,” she said.

McEachern said the police department is inundated with complaints. “For us, it’s a very cyclical problem,” he said. McEachern said the homeless unit will respond to future calls, so that they might refer the homeless individuals to city services, ask them to leave the area or arrest them for outstanding warrants. “The unfortunate thing is, … it’s an ongoing battle in the city, and I don’t see that ending anytime soon,” McEachern said.

He added that the police have also worked with the Safeway that is located south of Geary Boulevard, to help address the homeless complaints. According to the captain, Safeway agreed to stop providing recycling services, which previously drew in the homeless to trade in bottles and cans for money. They also agreed to better monitor their parking lot with private security.

Other Concerns
The Japan Center Malls also raised concerns about frequent late-night graffiti on the Geary Boulevard side of the Hotel Kabuki and Japan Center. McEachern said he his gang taskforce would examine the tags and monitor the area.

Teuila Auvaa, who lives and works in Japantown, said she had heard about and seen a group of bicyclists that congregate in the Buchanan Street Mall. “They seem to meet at one area and then spread out to hit up local stores,” she said. According to Auvaa, the bicyclists may have been involved with the robbery at the Super Mira grocery store last month. “I live in Japantown, and I see they tend to meet up in front of the fountains at night.”

Greg Marutani, an employee of the Japantown Task Force said he also heard about the bicyclists from two merchants in the neighborhood.

McEachern said he had not heard of this group, but would investigate further.

Japantown Community Initiatives
Hashimoto said the Japantown Business Watch Group would be able to provide support regarding the safety and crime concerns merchants have. The group operates a phone tree among Japantown merchants to warn of any suspicious people or activities, and enables them to share information to prevent crime.

Marutani spoke on behalf of the Japantown Business Watch Group. Marutani helped start the group last year. He said the organization is free to join, but requires participants to attend a free training session with San Francisco SAFE.

“We don’t know each other, this is the first time some of you have even seen each other,” Marutani said. “We hope that the Business Watch Group can be a non-taxing issue since it’s free to join.”

Hashimoto said the merchants association hopes to gain more members to better finance security. Three businesses along Buchanan Street are members, while only one is a member on the north side of Post Street, Hashimoto said.

“If we can get a few more merchants to engage with the merchants association, we could pay to extend the patrol along the north side of Post Street as well,” he said. “It’s only $30-40 a month.”

For more information on the Business Watch Group, contact Victor Lau at Katachi in the Japan Center West Mall, Ray Vogelzang at YakiniQ Cafe on Post Street, or e-mail japantownbwg@gmail.com.

For more information about the Japantown Merchants Association, call Richard Hashimoto at (415) 567-4573. To contact Captain Greg McEachern at the Northern Station, e-mail greg.mceachern@sfgov.org.

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