Accountability in Criminal Justice

Westside residents and court watch members at the Moraga tiled steps in Golden Gate Heights, the scene of many auto burglaries.

Westside residents and court watch members at the Moraga tiled steps in Golden Gate Heights, the scene of many auto burglaries.

By Joel P. Engardio

How many times does your car have to be broken into in front of your house before you call the police? At what point do you install a video camera?

How many times before you join your neighborhood association and volunteer to organize a crime and safety committee? When do you contact the politician that represents you at City Hall, the prosecutor assigned to auto burglaries or the judge who hears the cases?

For West Portal resident Andy Segal, the answer was six – the number of times his car was broken into the past year.

Segal’s frustration escalated with each incident as he tried everything listed above.

With two kids and a business to run, Segal didn’t have to get this involved. But the longtime San Francisco resident stepped up when he realized our city faces a much bigger problem than the smashed glass on curbs and driveways that has become such a common sight.

“There will always be crime in a big city, but last year was a signal that something is different now,” Segal said, citing the nearly 25,000 car burglaries reported in San Francisco in 2015 – three times more than in 2011. “Things feel out of control. There is a notion of anarchy.”

Westside residents are accustomed to a low crime rate, so the spike in auto burglaries in their neighborhoods was especially upsetting. They figuratively shook their fists and let it be known they’re “mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.”

They asked tough questions of politicians and law enforcement officials in a series of neighborhood meetings in recent months.

“There was a lot of finger-pointing. Cops saying the District Attorney wasn’t prosecuting and the District Attorney saying cops not making enough arrests with good evidence,” Segal said. “But then we started noticing there would be a good case – the police and D.A. both doing a good job – and the judge would let it go.”

Segal decided to start a court-watch group with other concerned westsiders. They take turns attending open court to monitor what happens.

No one should have to go this far to get answers, but their first case had a shocking discovery: the “wobbler” felony that a judge can reduce to a misdemeanor.

“It’s such an opaque, inside-baseball process,” Segal said. “Just when you think you understand it, you get thrown a curve like the ‘wobbler.’ It’s ridiculous.”

Segal’s group – currently about two dozen residents from the West Portal, Golden Gate Heights, Forest Hill and Inner Sunset neighborhoods – wants to organize a citywide network of citizen court-watchers. They’re calling it the Criminal Justice Accountability Coalition.

“The fact that criminals can repeat-offend without consequences was crazy to us,” said Frank Noto, vice president of the Golden Gate Heights Neighborhood Association. “Our intent for being in the courtroom is not to say someone is guilty. We want our presence to put pressure on the judge to hear all the evidence and take the case seriously.”

But will judges care? Voters elect them, and the court-watch group aims to publish a score sheet of every judge’s sentencing record. They also want to create an easily searchable database to track the progress of every case from the crime scene to the courtroom – something that should already exist.

Segal’s group has people talking at the Hall of Justice. Complacency has been put on notice.

“When a bunch of middle-aged westsiders show up to a typically empty courtroom, we stand out,” Segal said. “Maybe we’ll get t-shirts to be even more visible.”

Ward Evans lives next to the Moraga tiled steps in Golden Gate Heights, a tourist attraction especially hard hit by crime. He said the court-watch members are not vigilantes looking for overly harsh sentences.

“We’re not heartless law-and-order nuts,” Evans said. “We can be compassionate to the homeless addict while giving serial felons a time out. This is about disrupting the burglary business model.”

Evans said he is most concerned with organized criminals who work in teams and target San Francisco because they think it’s easier to avoid punishment here.

Last week, it was reported that San Francisco’s crime rate was down the first half of 2016. But a 25 percent reduction in auto burglaries is not enough to make the court-watchers go home.

“We’re still on track for 18,000 smash-and-grabs this year,” Evans said. “That number only reinforces the urgency of our cause.”

Also published in San Francisco Examiner July 10, 2016