Streetscast: An Interview with San Francisco Police Chief George Gascón

Police_Chief_George_Gasc__n.jpgPolice Chief George Gascón. Photo: Michael Rhodes

San Francisco Police Chief George Gascón is considering forming a task force to deal with bicycle and pedestrian issues, and "is very much in favor" of appointing a liaison to the bicycling community, as he begins to weigh a pressing number of livable streets concerns in the city.

"I think that some of the things that I would like to see here is
perhaps the development of a task force or a group of people that are
bicyclists as well as people that are not, and police, and try to
start looking at some of these issues and trying to come up with a
balanced approach that works for San Francisco dealing with traffic
concerns, dealing with pedestrian concerns, dealing with bicycles."

In a short interview with Streetsblog San Francisco last Friday, Gascón, who was recently sworn in as police chief after serving as the top cop in Mesa, Arizona, said he is committed to making sure Muni is safe for all riders (our interview was conducted shortly before word got out about the vicious stabbing of an 11-year-old rider), and is still studying a memorandum of understanding that gave the MTA a greater role in managing the traffic division.

"I think that we definitely have an obligation and are certainly committed to ensuring that our public transportation is safe. And that requires presence and that requires attention. The other part is that we have to be smart," said Gascón. "Not every line and not every time of the day is going to require the same level of public safety concerns. So we have to be intelligent enough to be able to put our resources in the right places at the right time. And yet we have to continuously send the message that we could be anywhere anytime, so it’s a balancing act."

Gascón committed to going on a bike ride with Streetsblog and bicycle activists to get a first-hand look at the conditions cyclists face on a daily basis, but balked at the idea of requiring all officers to occasionally ride a bicycle so they can understand the issues more thoroughly.

Gascón’s willingness to meet with us, and discuss livable streets
issues, is a sharp turnaround from the policies of his predecessor,
Heather Fong, who often steered clear of reporters, and ignored efforts
to establish closer working relationships with transit advocates. An SFPD public affairs spokesperson, Sgt. Lyn Tomioka, promised more time with the chief in the future. We tried to cram in as many questions as we could in our allotted fifteen minutes, and consulted with a number of transit advocates beforehand.

You can hear the entire interview below, and read highlights below the break:

[audio: http://sf.streetsblog.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2009/09/Chief-Gascon-Interview.mp3]

Streetsblog_with_Chief_Gascon__Sgt.jpgWith Chief Gascón and Public Affairs Sgt. Lyn Tomioka. Photo: Michael Rhodes.
  • On bicycling and making the city safer for bicyclists: "There is no question that it’s more environmentally sound, it’s actually healthier for the individuals, so there are a lot of pluses about people riding bikes. Again, I think as it is the case with pedestrians, we have to ensure that bicyclist behavior is also appropriate. I see it all the time, a bicyclist comes to a red light and then they look both ways and they basically go right through it. On the other hand, I understand the people driving cars, sometimes they have very little regard for people on bikes. Number one, because sometimes they don’t see the bike, and other times because they don’t care. I think we have to make sure that we do what we can through education and enforcement in order to make sure that people who are in motorized vehicles are respectful of bicyclists."
  • On the SFPD’s bicycle fleet: "I have looked at some of our bikes, some of them quite frankly are in dire need of replacement and we are talking about the possibility of some areas, in fact, where people are asking for foot beats, to say that maybe a bike patrol may be more effective than a foot beat, because we have a hybrid. You have more of a one to one contact, but on the other hand, you can cover a larger piece of territory."
  • On cars blocking bike lanes: "There’s no question that blocking a bike lane makes for a very dangerous situation, so if that is a problem that we have, those are some of the areas that we’re going to have to address. It could be a combination of education internally and externally. It could be also again looking at the total environmental structure in different parts of the city. I have seen some streets where the bike lane and everything is so tightly packed that it almost forces people sometimes to move around the bike lanes and move in other areas. So I think we have to come together and try to strike reasonable approaches to all of this, but the key to a lot of this is also communication and that’s why I’m very much in favor of having a liaison within the police department and the bicyclist community. And I think it’s also important to start bringing some people not only from the bicyclist community, but other communities to start discussing what are the solutions that will work well for us."
  • Would you support lowering speed limits to make the streets safer for pedestrians? "The problem sometimes with lowering speed limits is sometimes it has the opposite impact of what you’re looking for. In my experience many times it’s a combination of street engineering; certainly there are places where you have to lower speed limits. Many times pedestrian death or pedestrian injuries are also caused by poor behavior on the part of the pedestrians. Often pedestrians are jay walking, they’re not observing the traffic rules, so we have to be very careful, because it’s a balancing act, you need traffic to move. If you are to officially to start lowering the speed limit too much, not only do you start impacting negatively the vehicular traffic, but then basically what you do is you create a situation where people start having less regard for the law, because they know that they’re going to be exceeding it. So it’s a balancing act. We have to make sure that we look at pedestrian behavior and we need to look at driver behavior and then determine what are the best things we can do. Is it an engineering problem, is it a speed limit problem or a combination of all."
  • Do you think our problems with traffic here have more to do with a lack of enforcement or the design of the streets? "I think this is an old city and with old cities, and it’s not only in San Francisco, it occurs in other parts of the country, as well as in Europe, sometimes it’s more difficult to design state of the art traffic flow patterns because of the structure of the city, but that’s what makes this city also incredibly beautiful and adds so much character. So what we have to do is we have to kind of work with that. I think also sometimes it’s driver behavior, and again, because we are a high density city and there’s so many people that drive or come into the city during the week day, tourists, people that work here, some people drive, other people take public transportation. So you have a lot of people in very close confines and all of that I think creates opportunities for us to try to be more creative and looking for different solutions. But I think it’s a combination, I think it’s street design, I think it’s just the way the city is and I think that many of our streets were not designed for the level of traffic that they get today."
  • Do you hope to weigh the priority of traffic enforcement based on danger to communities and hazards to others over blanket enforcement? "Absolutely, I think that traffic enforcement as well as enforcement against gangs or drugs or any other issue has to be put in the context of where are the areas that create the greatest hazards to our community. And I think that traffic is a very important area and quite frankly its an area where we lose many more people than we do to other concerns. Unfortunately sometimes it doesn’t generate the same level of attention as a shooting and probably for a lot of good reasons. A shooting is an intentional act that is an assault on the entire community. Arguably somebody driving ten, 15 miles over the speed limit that is on the cell phone doesn’t carry the same context, even though the result at the end could be the same, somebody gets seriously injured or dead."
  • On high-speed chases: "I believe that our policies are adequate; I’m not so sure that all of our training is as much as we need to have, but this is an area that we are going to evaluate as we move on. Suffice it to say that I am a strong believer that in a police pursuit the end never justifies the means, meaning catching the bad guy doesn’t justify just going any other way, any way that you can in order to get it there. I think that we have to evaluate and it’s really a team effort. Many times the officer driving the car develops a certain level of tunnel vision and this is where the partner officer and the supervisors need to be able to assertively say hey you know what let’s back off or let’s not continue this pursuit. But that’s training and clear policies are very important in this area and something that we’re going to be looking at."
  • ZA

    Welcome Chief Gascón! May your ride through San Francisco prove illuminating. I hope your experience will get a taste of the road conditions cyclists regularly face, both in physical infrastructure and by time of day. Please note both what works and doesn’t work.

  • soylatte

    I’m not impressed, but then again I would have been shocked if he was well versed in livable streets issues. (That sort of thing must come from the mayoral level.)

    Still, my blood briefly boiled when he was asked about cyclist safety and it took him about ten seconds to turn it into the issue of cyclists running red lights. He did the same on the topic of pedestrian accidents. I wish him well, but I can tell Gascon will be C. W. Nevius’ darling.

  • Nick

    How about when motorists overtake a cyclist by accelerating into the oncoming lane of traffic (endangering every possible road user)?

    Education , enforcement, engineering.

    Those sharrows are pointless if cyclists are still getting buzzed.

  • ZA

    @Soylatte –

    Oh, he definitely has a ‘cockpit view’ of the road – and it’s not his job to make any exclusive commitments at this early point in his new job. But if he’s willing to meet half-way, and the community has a chance to let him experience the challenges first hand, during the commuting hours, that’s all for the good.

  • Gascon is a shrewd political operator, who no doubt understands that the city’s bike people aren’t universally popular here in Progressive Land.

  • Pat

    I am happy he shows signs of understanding street engineering. I just hope the early signs that he is trying to start a Giuliani style crackdown on city life do not pan out.

  • SFResident

    Overall it was as good an interview as I could expect, but there were still some troubling moments.

    The thing that worries me the most is the bit about shootings vs. reckless driving. Why is a shooting, which is almost always an intentional act committed against an individual who the perpetrator knows, more of an “assault against the entire community” than a murderously negligent driver whose actions are much more likely to harm and kill strangers and uninvolved community members?

    I understand the need to arrest and incarcerate murderers, but I’m a bit dismayed by the kind of thinking that doesn’t frame both personal violence *and* the very real violence caused by motorists as assaults against the community. Being assaulted by motorists is not an acceptable facet of urban life. And it’s certainly no comfort to the dead to know that “at least they weren’t shot by a gang member.”

    I understand that going after reckless drivers isn’t as sexy as getting the ‘real bad guys,’ but it’s a critical component of making our city safe and livable. If Gascon can’t step up to that task I’ll be disappointed.

  • Kevin

    I think the rank and file police officers take bicycle accidents seriously and they deserve credit for it.

    Example: today around 11AM at the West Portal/Junipero Serra intersection a bicyclist was hit by a car. Within 3 minutes of the accident, 6 police cars had responded along with a fire truck.

    Thankfully, it was not a hit and run and the bicyclist recieved only minor injuries. That kind of response should be commended at least.

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