Six hundred and twenty-two dollars and eighty-one cents. This is a figure virtually every builder toiling within San Francisco city limits has had emblazoned onto his or her memory through sheer repetition. In fact, counting in multiples of the dreaded $622.81 ticket has become something of a prerequisite for those in the city's building trades.
When a police officer pulled up at the Mission District construction site Brian was overseeing last year, the contractor's experience in adding — and multiplying — that number began. Claiming Brian's cones, road signs, and flagmen were placed improperly, the officer handed him a ticket for $622.81. Brian adjusted his site to meet the officer's demands. But, several days later, another officer showed up — brandishing yet another $622.81 ticket. The second officer claimed his colleague's notions about cones, signs, and flagmen were wrong and had Brian remake the site once again. So by the time a third officer dropped by roughly a week later and pulled the same act, Brian had had enough. "I said, 'Listen, I'm not signing that ticket. I'm doing it exactly the way your fellow officer told me to do it,'" he recalls. And that's when the cuffs came out.
Brian — who asked that his last name not be used — shut his mouth and signed the ticket. He is just one of the hundreds of contractors, roofers, and movers stung by the city's Safe Paths of Travel (SPOT) program. In a setup unique among California cities, police officers earning hefty overtime pay from the Municipal Transportation Authority's Department of Parking and Traffic cruise the city, ticketing builders who allegedly block the sidewalk, double-park, or otherwise impede the public right-of-way. SPOT's organizers claim the program is not about generating tickets or amassing money — yet, in not quite four years of operation, it has done plenty of both. Officers have handed out more than 4,200 tickets resulting in revenues approaching $2 million, including $771,372 last year alone.
The little-known program's public profile grew significantly last month, but not in a manner SPOT's leadership enjoyed. Half a dozen builders filed reports with the city's Office of Citizen Complaints charging harassment, discrimination, and selective enforcement. Supervisor Aaron Peskin echoed some of those stinging criticisms after a recent meeting in his office with SPOT's top administrators and other city personnel.
SPOT director Sergeant Pat Tobin describes his program as "a diamond of the city" with a crusader's zeal — but not everyone's view is so sanguine. Even the program's staunchest supporters are uncomfortable with the fact that some of the city's biggest businesses have such low ticket totals. Of the 4,202 tickets written from 2005 through August of this year, just 1.4 percent went to utility companies such as PG&E, AT&T, and Comcast. These firms are ubiquitous presences on city streets; PG&E alone estimates it sends 80 to 85 trucks through San Francisco daily to work on 30 to 35 job sites. Meanwhile, only five tickets — total — have been given to city crews like the Department of Public Works or the Water Department.
Even more disturbingly, a handful of contractors told SF Weekly that Tobin or his officers have suggested that worksite problems would be alleviated if they hired off-duty police on overtime to oversee their jobs — a charge Tobin denies. Off-duty officers earned $4.93 million in overtime pay on San Francisco construction sites last year alone. As for the notion that hiring police means you won't get tickets, Tobin himself is unsure of the last time his program ticketed a site with police on it. For builders, this was no revelation: "If you have a police officer, you can pretty much do what you want on-site," one fairly large contractor says. "If you've got cops there, there's definitely a different standard. It's great – if you can afford it."
Tobin slams a fat binder on the table. It's chock-full of chaotic San Francisco construction zone snapshots in which Baghdad by the Bay resembles Baghdad, period. To make their tickets stick, Tobin and his officers are equipped with digital cameras — and, as the girth of the binder reveals, they use them. Photos of disabled people and women with strollers forced onto the roadway by careless contractors are par for the course. Yet Tobin grows most animated by the Holy Grail of construction ticketing photos: an improperly blocked sidewalk forcing a toddler out on the street — who is also pushing an infant in a stroller. He nods vigorously and thrice raps his finger on the offending picture. This is what SPOT is all about.
In an SF Weekly ride-along with Tobin, he didn't see any children directing strollers into traffic. But there was plenty to get him excited. "Look at that! Look ... at ... that!" he exclaims as he hurriedly pulls his SUV to the side of the road high atop foggy Corona Heights and speedwalks toward a trench in the sidewalk. A confused plumber pops his head out of the hole and squints at the rapidly approaching boots of the tall, white-haired man. "Dónde está el jefe?" Tobin quizzes the worker. "Muy peligroso, muy peligroso! Have your boss call me right away," he says, miming a phone call. Tobin strides across the street and makes the same speech to the roofers blocking the sidewalk completely with their truck.
"I remember one thing Pat said that I'll never get out of my mind," contractor Kieran Buckley recalls, sporting a wan smile while he shakes his head. "He said, 'The hardest thing for me to do is giving you guys tickets next to going out and telling somebody a family member has been killed or died.'" Yet spotting gaping trenches or blocked sidewalks didn't seem to induce a state akin to mourning in Tobin at all. In fact, it was quite the opposite: He lit up like a birdwatcher rewarded with a glimpse of a nesting blue heron.
After leaving the plumbers and roofers, Tobin confirmed that he'd usually cite them for their obvious violations of city rules and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Today, however, he'd make a "gentlemen's agreement" with their bosses and let everyone off the hook if they attended SPOT's monthly safety seminar. And yet, five minutes later, he reconsidered his display of benevolence. He phoned Officer Mike Palada, dictated the address, and told him to issue citations. "You don't change a culture with admonishments," Tobin says nonchalantly.