San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee said Wednesday he is considering implementing a controversial stop-and-frisk policy similar to that used in New York and other cities, where officers try to reduce violent crime by searching people they consider suspicious in an attempt to seize illegal weapons.
“This is under consideration as a way to make sure that we keep homicides and some of these other violent crime(s) down,” Lee told The Chronicle‘s editorial board. “I think we have to get to the guns. I know we have to find a different way to get to these weapons, and I’m very willing to consider what other cities are doing.”
It’s a surprising move for a mayor who has described himself as “a progressive before progressive was a political faction in this town” and who leads what is viewed as one of the most liberal cities in the country.
“Wow,” said Supervisor Malia Cohen, who represents a large swath of southeastern San Francisco and hadn’t heard about the idea until contacted by The Chronicle. “That’s shocking and alarming.”
Civil rights groups and others have denounced stop-and-frisk policies in various cities as a racist approach that disproportionately affects Latino and African American residents. Several thousand demonstrators marched through New York’s streets this month to protest the policy.
A recent report by the New York Civil Liberties Union found that the vast majority of people stopped by police there were black or Latino, and that of 686,000 people stopped in 2011, 88 percent of them had done nothing wrong.
In Philadelphia, city officials agreed last year to court monitoring of their stop-and-frisk program to settle a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and others, who alleged that police officers used racial profiling and stopped people with little or no justification.
Supporters of stop-and-frisk policies say the approach helps reduce crime and get guns off the streets.
A risky move
Lee did not provide details but acknowledged he is considering tactics that “might be edgy” to reduce gun violence, particularly in the city’s southeastern neighborhoods and in public housing projects such as Sunnydale, the scene of four recent shootings.
Other attempts have been thwarted, such as a 2005 voter-approved ballot measure banning the sale or possession of handguns within city limits that the courts ruled invalid.
“It’s controversial. I will be tagged – as the minority mayor of this city – for racial profiling,” said Lee, a former civil rights attorney. “But I’m going to let everybody know that if it works … I’m going to do something in that direction.”
Lee said he wants to explore the idea after having “a good conversation about stop-and-frisk” with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Later Wednesday, Lee’s spokeswoman, Christine Falvey, said the mayor would not mimic New York or Philadelphia. “He wants to talk about what’s working there.”
Lee said he will meet soon with the Rev. Amos Brown, president of the San Francisco chapter of the NAACP, to try to get him and other black ministers to join him in supporting a new policy in the city.
Brown said it’s true that gun violence in the city’s African American and Latino communities is “out of hand.”
But he said he will support a stop-and-frisk policy only if police officers will enforce it without using racial profiling and in a calm, compassionate way.
“I’m not supporting any rough, gruff officers coming in like they do in a police state,” he said.
If done wrong, the approach could undermine the city’s community policing efforts, where an increase in foot patrols and contact with residents and merchants breeds trust and greater cooperation, some analysts said.
“It is a legitimate tool, but it’s also one that is abused and has the ability to destroy community-police relations,” said David Rudovsky, a civil rights lawyer who represented eight people who sued Philadelphia over its stop-and-frisk approach.
Alan Schlosser, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, said he was shocked that Lee is considering bringing stop-and-frisk to San Francisco.
“San Francisco for years has tried to develop … policies that reduce racial profiling,” Schlosser said. “This just seems like a total reverse of that.”
Ex-gang member skeptical
Shawn Richard, a former gang member who now leads the nonprofit Brothers Against Guns in the Bayview, said racial profiling would occur here, too. He’s doubtful that a white person driving through the Bayview would be pulled over under the policy.
“Who does that leave? People of color, right?” he said.
Richard said there are “a lot” of concealed weapons carried in Bayview-Hunters Point and that shootings in the neighborhood are rampant. He shared Brown’s feeling that the policy could prove helpful – but only if it’s applied without regard to race.
Police Department figures show that in 2009, homicides in the city were more than halved, from 97 the previous year to 46, and have since held steady at 50 for both 2010 and 2011. There have been 37 homicides so far this year, but Police Chief Greg Suhr said shootings overall are down 10 percent year to date.
“We know we’re doing it right,” said Suhr, whom Lee appointed last year. “We have no interest in racially profiling here. … I think we’re more of the model in the country on how to do it right.” Lee takes the news of shootings in the city very personally, Suhr said.
“He’s more upset than I can tell you,” the chief said. Suhr is confident that once the mayor “hears the downside of this and how it was not well received in New York or Philadelphia or by law enforcement in general, he’ll see that’s not the best way to do business here.”
John Coté and Heather Knight are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. E-mail: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org