Noe Valley Voice July-August 2012

Merchants Pine for More Foot Patrols

Shoplifting Spikes in ‘Downtown Noe Valley’

By Heather World

Security Ceiling: Audrey Yang of Two Birds clothing on Castro Street points to part of the store's camera setup, designed to deter and record those who would rather not pay for merchandise.    Photo by Pamela Gerard

A sample jacket from Lola San Francisco, $3,000 worth of clothes from Two Birds, and some unpleasant scenes with unfamiliar homeless men: shoplifting and quality-of-life crimes are up on 24th Street, according to local merchants.

“It’s out of control,” said Bernie Melvin of Bernie’s café on 24th Street near Noe. In early June, she called 911 three days in a row to report issues with belligerent and unbalanced homeless men. “I’ve never had to do that in five years.”

Just for Fun owner David Eiland compared the first half of this year to the days before beat cops patrolled the commercial strip.

“There are more people panhandling, more shopping carts, and these are people we’ve not seen before,” he said. “It’s an element that disappeared when we got beat cops.”

Police reports in the Noe Valley Voice show an increase in shoplifting and public nuisance crimes since January. Melvin and others see a correlation with the absence of Officer Lorraine Lombardo, the street’s regular foot patrol police officer.

Lombardo returned to 24th Street in mid-June following a two-month vacation, one that had been carefully timed to precede a wave of police retirements expected to shrink the force this summer. What she had not prepared for was the injury that sidelined her for another two months prior to her vacation.

Dispelling rumors of possible retirement, Lombardo said she is happy to be back and plans to stay. Catching up on the 24th Street beat will not be hard, she said.

“All I have to do is go to Bernie’s, and I find it all out in a half hour,” she said. “That’s my sub police station.”

Already, she’s encountered two people who were causing quality-of-life problems. They’ve seen her and know she’s keeping an eye on them, she said. That familiarity is what makes community policing so successful at preventing crime, she said.

“The uniform takes it down a notch, that’s for sure,” she said.

It’s All Relative

Mission Police Station Captain Robert Moser said he had been staffing the 24th Street beat regularly in Lombardo’s absence.

“We might have seen what can be considered an increased wave of shoplifting in that area, but I haven’t seen anything off the charts for what’s happening district-wide,” he said.

Lombardo was once one of two officers who walked the beat in the early 1990s, but budget cuts have reduced the position to one. Fewer police means Lombardo also has to leave her beat when other needs arise, like working the Pride Parade or trial races for the America’s Cup. Consequently, 24th Street has less than one full-time beat officer.

Clothing designer Lola Herrera has been in her shop, Lola San Francisco, on Castro Street, for about a year and a half, but said she hasn’t seen a police officer in the vicinity.

“I think if there was some [police] presence, it would definitely make a difference,” said Herrera, who lost a coat sample worth about $850 to two shoplifters in May.

The same quick-fingered pair hit Two Birds, a clothing store three doors south of Lola.

Owner Audrey Yang said her store lost $3,000 worth of clothes.

“They got us pretty bad,” she said.

Not all crimes are reported to the police, especially if victims feel the suspects are long gone. Moser said a report should be made regardless.

“Just because they’ve left one location doesn’t mean they aren’t going to go to another location,” he said. “The more information we have, the better we can respond to the crime and the better chance we have of apprehending the suspect.”

Merchants also have a phone tree to alert each other to crimes, but it is in the process of being updated by Susanna Taylor of Two Birds.

Parklets No Problem

Many residents had worried that the street’s two open-space parklets would be a magnet for the homeless and mentally ill, but despite an uptick in reported incidents, those fears have not been realized, say business owners.

“There are no issues with the parklets,” said Eiland, who tends to the parklet outside his store. “They’ve been tremendously successful.”

Martha Monroy, owner of Martha & Bros, says the parklet outside her shop has had no problems, and Charles Ng, who owns Holey Bagel to the west, agreed.

David Hurley, who has lived across the street for 10 years, said the parklets may have had a salutary effect on crime.

“It’s the same as it always was, if not less,” he said. “The park has been great.”