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By Corrie M. Anders
As her husband slept, Saiko Matsumaru slipped out of bed, curious about the source of unease that had awakened her at 1:30 in the morning. It could have been the family cat bouncing around in another room. Or it could have been the flickering glow of her daughter's computer, accidentally left on.
What she found in the dark kitchen stopped her cold. The glimmer came from a small flashlight, held in the hands of a stranger who was burglarizing her Noe Valley home.
The intruder turned towards her, and Matsumaru screamed as they made eye contact. She wasn't sure, she said later, if she screamed in English or in her native Japanese. By the time her husband sprinted into the room, the burglar had fled empty-handed through a back door that had been left unlocked.
Sadly, home invasions like Matsumaru's seem to be more and more common in Noe Valley these days. In November and December of 2006, there were 28 residential burglaries reported to police (see the Police Beat column in the February Voice). Strong-arm street robberies, car thefts, and vandalism also appeared to be on the rise.
Worries about escalating crime prompted more than 50 people to attend a community meeting Feb. 8, to discuss their concerns and to search for ways to combat the problem. The two-hour session at St. Philip's Church also heard from a panel that included police brass from Mission and Ingleside stations, a representative from the District Attorney's office, and District 8 Supervisor Bevan Dufty. Two residents groups, Friends of Noe Valley and Upper Noe Neighbors, co-sponsored the forum.
Crime Rates, Foot Patrols Hard to Pin Down
Friends of Noe Valley president Richard May said the lack of police foot patrols in the neighborhood was one reason crime was up. "We lost our beat police officers, and we saw an increase in crime," he said.
"There was clearly a spike in burglaries," agreed John Goldberg, captain of Mission Station, which covers the part of Noe Valley stretching from 21st Street to Cesar Chavez Street. Goldberg said the department responded last fall and in January, deploying undercover officers in late-night operations and subsequently making several arrests.
As for the foot patrols, the last police officer to walk a beat in Noe Valley, Andrew MacIlrath, was pulled for other duties about six months ago, Goldberg said. The beat officer's return is problematic, according to the captain, who noted that recent Board of Supervisors legislation requires mandatory beats throughout the city and "24th Street is not one of them."
Goldberg could not immediately quantify how much crime had risen overall in Noe Valley.
No number crunching was needed, however. Those who attended the meeting gave firsthand accounts of their brushes with thieves and thugs. Many speakers thanked the Police Department for its officers' quick response to incidents. At the same time, they complained that the city wasn't doing nearly enough to curb crime.
City officials pointed out that retirements and delays in hiring new officers had left the department with a current shortage of 250 police officers, which has hampered crime-fighting efforts. That means residents and businesses must take a more proactive role to enhance their own security.
Burglars Seek Open Doors
Police Inspector Joe Nannery of the SFPD's Burglary Detail told the St. Philip's crowd that one of the most effective deterrents against residential break-ins was also one of the easiest: always keep your doors and windows locked. Nannery cited the example of a recently-arrested career criminal who was suspected of committing 30 home burglaries. The thief had simply entered through unlocked doors, Nannery said.
Matsumaru, for one, admitted her family had been a bit cavalier about locking the 23rd Street home she shares with her husband and 12-year-old daughter. The family felt secure because their middle-of-the-block home is hemmed in by other residences, has a six-foot-high fence, and is "surrounded by dogs."
"We've lived here for six years and we always felt safe," said Matsumaru, who later expanded on her public comments in a Voice interview. "Sometimes we'd leave the door open and leave the screen open on one of the few nights when it's nice. So we've not been paying attention carefully to lock the door especially in the back every night."
At the St. Philip's meeting, a police investigator told Matsumaru that a description she had provided to a sketch artist led to the arrest of a suspect. "Oh good," said Matsumaru, who now makes sure her home is secure before retiring for the night.
Merchants Feel Strapped
Susan Walia was another crime victim. Her Castro Computer Services store, at Castro and 25th streets, has suffered two late-night burglaries in six months. The first break-in occurred in August, and then, on Jan. 10, a crowbar-wielding burglar hit her store and five others on the same night.
"To me, crime in Noe Valley has been epidemic, and it has gone unnoticed until last month, when there were undercover people here and they caught some people," she said.
Walia's shop now has expensive internal and external gates on the front and back doors and security bars strapped across all the windows. Walia said the metal protection does not lend itself to an inviting atmosphere.
"Just imagine being in jail," she lamented. "That's how it looks from the inside."
Walia said she was exasperated that the city wasn't providing more protection, adding that small-margin businesses like hers had to take on the added expense of security measures.
"It's very expensive. I already pay [city] taxes" and assessments made by Noe Valley's Community Benefit District, she said. "What more do I have to do as a citizen and taxpayer to get some help here?"
Brazen Daylight Robbery
T.J. Lee, an agent with Zephyr Real Estate, told the St. Philip's forum that he and his partner were the victims last July of a brazen daylight robbery in downtown Noe Valley. Lee said two men, one a juvenile, accosted the couple as they walked on 24th Street near Castro Street.
"One stuck the gun in my partner's heart, right in his chest, and pulled him into a doorway" and demanded money, said Lee. "I just went to the edge of the sidewalk and started making as much noise as I could."
The thugs took off without getting anything. Nate Martin, an Apple Computer engineer who had been on 24th Street with his fiancée, chased but couldn't catch the robbers. Martin said he was surprised no one else tried to help.
"There were people all over the street, Martin said. The robbers "were running past restaurants full of people. They were running towards one woman who got a good look at them. She stayed around to make sure everyone was okay, but left before the cops got there. As far as I know, I'm the only one who called in. We were somewhat appalled not to see anyone else reacting."
Pleas for More Police
Speakers also complained about shoplifting, graffiti, and rowdy students along the J-Church and other Muni bus lines. Neighbors said the Upper Noe Recreation Center and the historic Noe ValleySally Brunn Library, now under renovation, had been tagged several times.
In response to pleas for more beat officers, Dufty and others noted that it had been difficult to get new recruits through the Police Academy in order to bring the department up to full strength.
Many would-be recruits fail to make it through the Academy screening process, explained Lt. Donna Meixner of the Ingleside Police District. They are rejected for reasons ranging from juvenile drug usage, to prior criminal records, to moral turpitude.
"It's a slow process," Meixner said. "We want to take the best. We don't want problems."
City Says It's Up to You
Residents were given a number of ideas to help deter criminal activity, including the creation of neighborhood watch programs.
"If you're going to stop crime in your neighborhood, it's not going to be the police. They can't be everywhere. It's going to be you," said Pam Matsuda, program director for Safety Awareness for Everyone (SAFE).
Assistant District Attorney Rebecca Prozan urged reluctant victims and witnesses to overcome their fears and report crimes. "What makes my job difficult is when someone doesn't want to come forward," said Prozan.
In addition to more cops, a number of speakers asked about the feasibility of the city installing high-intensity street lighting and surveillance cameras similar to those used to monitor violent neighborhoods. Others, however, said those measures smacked of Big Brotherism. And with shops increasingly adding security bars and metal grills, some locals worried that small-town Noe Valley might acquire a negative image.
After the meeting concluded, several victims offered mixed feelings about whether they felt safe living in Noe Valley.
"I still feel the anxiety," said Matsumaru. "I have a daughter, so I want to make sure this is a great place to live. But we can't ignore that we live in the city and these kinds of things happen."
But the robbery was too frightening for Lee and his partner, who live near 23rd and Eureka streets. "We're going to move out as soon as our lease is up in June," Lee said.
Six Ways to Lock Out Burglars
The San Francisco Police Department and SAFE, a neighborhood watch organization, say the following tips can help Noe Valley residents prevent burglaries at their homes:
* Keep doors and windows locked when away from the home. Approximately half of all residential burglaries are made through unforced entries.
* Disconnect any exterior electric key switchers or electronic number pads that open your garage door. Instead, use either a remote control opener or a key.
* Install a 180-degree wide-angle door viewer on your front door and look before opening it.
* Consider having an alarm system as a backup to your physical and personal security measures.
* Try not to keep valuables in a visible location. Mark valuables for identification and recovery.
* Join or establish a SAFE neighborhood watch group on your block. Contact SAFE at 415-553-1984 or www.sfsafe.org.