December 6, 2023

The wise folks who assured us that lots of jobs handled by the police could be better handled by someone else should listen to San Francisco vending inspectors. Thanks to a series of laws passed in recent years, these unarmed inspectors find themselves routinely trying to confiscate stolen merchandise from armed and sometimes violent street criminals. This week they pleaded with the Board of Supervisors to recognize their situation was both unsafe and unsustainable.

Advertisement

About a dozen inspectors lined up for public comment in the board chambers to highlight the many tribulations associated with enforcing the city’s vendor laws. They spoke of being physically assaulted and threatened with knives and firearms, especially by vendors and fencers of stolen goods, as well as being frequently spat at, shoulder-checked and verbally abused, even while escorted by police…

Since 2022, the task of enforcing illegal street vending across San Francisco has fallen to a group of DPW inspectors after San Francisco launched a new program to address the issue in the wake of city legislation. Historically, the police department addressed illegal vending, but officers are limited in their ability to intervene, some critics said, after Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law authored by state Senator Lena Gonzalez (D-Long Beach) that decriminalized street vending, making it a city violation subject to local fines instead of a misdemeanor.

The situation has become so dangerous that the city’s Department of Public Works recently started offering bulletproof vests to inspectors who want to wear them while on the job.

Public Works spokesperson Rachel Gordon this week detailed the threats to department employees tasked with carrying out inspections and enforcing sidewalk vending laws that require anyone selling food or merchandise in public spaces to have a valid city permit.

Inspectors have been “pushed, bumped, (had) items thrown at them,” Gordon said. “The verbal attacks remain frequent.”

Public Works made bulletproof vests available for staff, Gordon said, and “some opt to use them.” Within the past year, street vending inspectors have been punched in the stomach and received death threats, she added.

Advertisement

Mission Local reported back in July that inspectors were asking the city to have police take over these dangerous duties. That would make a lot of sense but unfortunately a state law passed in 2018 to decriminalize street vending makes that impossible.

It’s a “zero sum game” for some vendors who don’t have San Francisco addresses or scavenge or steal the goods they sell, said Michael Lennon, a Public Works manager. They can easily abandon their goods and leave the scene…

And, although Lennon and his colleagues who spoke with community members on Tuesday indicated that police taking over permit enforcement would be ideal, state law prohibits that.

Senate Bill 946, passed in 2018, decriminalized sidewalk vending, and prohibits criminal penalties for violations of sidewalk vending ordinances and regulations…

But when administrative citations are issued for violating San Francisco’s permit requirement, Lennon said, they don’t “necessarily have teeth, or much of an impact on the particular group of violators who are most problematic.”

So the state decriminalized vending to prevent people from being arrested but now that San Francisco is trying to push back on the sale of stolen goods it finds it has no tools available to stop the thieves. Inspectors can demand to see their permits but vendors who don’t have them can either flee, pack up and come back as soon as inspectors leave or get a ticket which they proceed to ignore. The vendors can also try to bully the inspectors physically which is what many of them have experienced.

Advertisement

One worker who spoke at the meeting Tuesday night described the situation as “failed legislation.” The President of the Board agreed with him.

Another inspector who would only identify himself as “some city employee” told supervisors, “This is failed legislation,” and said that police were needed to deal with the situation appropriately.

“It’s organized retail theft, and they’re fencing these items to support their drug habits,” the unnamed worker said. “Police are the people that need to handle this, not street inspectors who were hired and trained to check on permits and the safety of sidewalks and ensure that the public right of way is maintained.”…

“Let me say that if it were up to this Board of Supervisors, we would go back to the system as it existed for all of the years that I have been in office until the state of California took it away from this city and every city in the state of California, the ability to enforce these laws criminally,” [Board President Aaron Peskin] said. “It is not this mayor’s fault. It is not this board of supervisors’ fault. It is the state of California, Gov. Newsom, and the state Legislature’s fault, and they should fix it.

That makes a lot of sense but I suspect not much will happen until one of these inspectors is severely injured or worse. Then the state’s progressives will finally be forced to admit another experiment in criminal justice reform had unintended consequences.

Advertisement