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San Francisco Civil Rights Roundup

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The Coalition on Homelessness works for and with homeless people to defend their basic human rights and to create a permanent end to homelessness. On a daily basis homeless people have to deal with civil and human rights abuses in addition to the standard difficulties of living on the streets. Recently the Coalition has been hearing reports of repeated abuse from individual San Francisco Police officers directed at homeless people.

Weekly, the Civil Rights Department of the Coalition conducts “street watches” where volunteers and staff members go into the streets to interview homeless people and to build relationships of trust between our homeless non profit organizations, business and housed residents. The purpose is to educate the public about the laws regarding our rights as community members in San Francisco and also to educate people about the constant efforts of the police to criminalize ordinary activities of daily survival of those who are forced to live on our streets. We then work together with those who are affected by different laws, legislation and policies to find possible solutions. It is in this forum that we were informed of the police abuse.

Police Abuse and Harassment is one of the largest issues homeless people face each day. Through police efforts to enforce laws that criminalize ordinary activities like sleeping, eating, camping, etc. our homeless population is being targeted for actions that most of San Francisco’s residents can perform indoors. Due to the lack of services and housing, a homeless person’s every action must be performed in public.

Some police officers and governmental agencies use existing laws to selectively target, poor and homeless people. This selective enforcement makes everything a homeless people does to survive illegal and thus many homeless people end up with criminal records that prevent them from exiting homelessness. Many homeless people are denied the opportunity to get housing and are denied access to such services as GA, CAAP, SSI etc. We are getting reports of SSI recipients whose checks are stopped because they have a warrant out for sleeping in the park. By documenting incidents such as these, we’ve found that the selective enforcement of these laws create barriers that play a major role in preventing people from exiting homelessness.

In defense of the San Francisco Police Department, it is only a few Police Officers who have been overly zealous, combative and punitive, in their enforcement of the quality of life laws. It is our belief, though, that one officer abusing his or her position of power is one too many.

It has been reported to the Civil Rights Department, and documented in interviews, that one Police Officer in particular, has been especially verbally and physically abusive in her use of excessive force, created great hardship, and at times been downright mean in her interactions with homeless and poor people.

Specific examples related to Civil Rights Outreach staff, documenting the behavior of Officer Sue Lavin include:

  • On Sep. 22, 2005, while doing StreetWatch in Graffiti Park, in the Bayview District, it was related to Civil Rights Department staff, in a video interview, that Officer Lavin had towed his van. Prior to this she had been repeatedly coming to a particular individual’s van, banging on the side with a flashlight at 5:00am and jumping up and down on his bumper to harass him.

    He has filed a complaint against her. At a later hearing, on it was determined by a Hearing Officer that the van had been taken illegally, and was returned to him. At this time Officer Lavin said that she was “Going to get him”. His van has again been towed since then, and not yet returned to him.

  • On 22Sep05, also in Graffiti Park, another individual informed us of his experience with Officer Lavin. He had, on 04Aug05, been watching his friend’s belongings while his friend was in court. Officer Lavin told him that she had warned him the night before to leave the area, and that if he didn’t leave immediately she would arrest him. She told him that he could take nothing with him as he prepared to depart. He walked away, but realizing that he’d forgotten his medications, he returned to get them. Officer Lavin then placed him in handcuffs. When placing him in the police car she hit him on the top of the head with a metal folder she was carrying, causing a wound to his head. We videotaped his statement, filled out an OCC form, took pictures of the wound, and told him that we would get back to him after we’d filed the complaint on his behalf.
  • On 28Sep05, interviews with several people at 24th & Illinois streets and Toland & McKinnon streets revealed that Officer Lavin, in addition to writing copious amounts of tickets has been telling selected people to “Get out of MY city”.

Officer Lavin’s statements, her actions, and general demeanor are intolerable in a city such as San Francisco, which places great value on individuality, fairness, and equal treatment of all its citizens. She must be stopped, taken off of our city streets, and retrained in sensitivity. We of the Civil Rights Outreach Department of the Coalition on Homelessness are dedicated to stopping these abuses of the civil rights of all people.


Author: Street Sheet Editor

The STREET SHEET is the oldest continuously published street news paper in the United States. Organizationally, it is the public education and outreach tool of the Coalition on Homelessness. Every month, the STREET SHEET reaches 32,000 readers through over 200 homeless or low-income vendors. Our vendors are charged nothing for the papers they receive, and keep all money they earn through STREET SHEET distribution.

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