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Thursday, April 23, 2009

SPOT Check: Police Commission 'Disturbed' By Allegations Made Against S.F. Ticketing Program -- But Not As Disturbed as Builders, Who Threaten a Lawsuit

Posted By on Thu, Apr 23, 2009 at 5:30 AM

click to enlarge Former SPOT director Pat Tobin confronts roofers blocking a sidewalk - JOE ESKENAZI
  • Joe Eskenazi
  • Former SPOT director Pat Tobin confronts roofers blocking a sidewalk
After more than two hours of loud and public excoriations of a San Francisco safety program critics say was transformed into an overtime cash cow by the police officers enforcing it, the potentially biggest thunderclap of the night was uttered at barely more than a whisper.

As he stepped into an elevator following last night's police commission meeting, longtime San Francisco contractor Joe Cassidy casually mentioned that he is seriously considering filing a class-action lawsuit against the city to recover the millions of dollars builders have paid in fines to the Safe Paths of Travel (SPOT) program.

The program -- in which police officers earning overtime were paid by the Municipal Transportation Agency to ticket builders blocking the public right-of-way by double-parking or running tubes across the sidewalk or otherwise -- was the subject of an October 2008 SF Weekly cover story. The week the story came out, MTA and the police department announced an overhaul eliminating many of the objectionable features highlighted in the article -- this timing was coincidental, SF Weekly was told. Also eliminated was program director Sergeant Pat Tobin -- the object of much vitriol at last night's police commission meeting -- in favor of Lieutenant Nicole Greeley. 

At yesterday's hearing -- requested by police commission president Theresa Sparks -- Greeley took pains to note that much has changed for the better since October, a point the many builders present concurred with:

  • The $622.81 tickets for double-parking in a construction zone -- which were charged to the general contractor, even if given to people he was not employing -- have ceased. Greeley said she has instructed officers to hand out tickets for the normal double-parking fine, which is around $70;
  • The problematic structure in which overtime-earning officers were handing out tickets to fund a self-financing program has been modified. SPOT is now de-centralized, with largely on-duty officers handling areas around the stations to which they report;
  • Tickets for highly specialized areas such as scaffolding construction -- which builders complained police officers were not qualified to oversee -- have been eliminated;
  • The ticket-to-admonishment ratio has become around 1:1 -- a far cry from the 200:1 measure of several years back;
  • The mediation system -- in which an officer who handed out tickets was

    also adjudicating the case, along with a mediator on speakerphone --

    has been done away with in favor of an uninvolved officer and a live

    mediator who can actually review builders' evidence;

  • The SFPD is in the process of transitioning the program to MTA, which will be responsible for its enforcement; Police Chief Heather Fong noted that SPOT is "truly an MTA program to start with" -- which makes it curious that the SFPD has been the agency jealously enforcing it for nearly a decade.
Despite these improvements, a long line of Residential Builders Association members trudged up to the podium and excoriated the program and its erstwhile leader, Tobin, with many of the stories reported originally in SF Weekly. One of the most repeated statistics was that around 99 percent of the SPOT tickets go to private contractors -- big utilities like PG&E hardly get ticketed and city crews almost never do.
"It's easy to see how much SPOT cost the industry. That's simple math. But this is about more than money," said RBA President Sean Keighran. "This program has made a mockery out of our rights for the last eight years, along with all our confidence in good standards of police work and the judicial system -- all in the name of overtime pay. ... I don't mind police receiving overtime, even lots of overtime if there's work to be done. But you've got a problem when overtime pay becomes the motivational factor driving the policy and procedure. We need an investigation looking into a complete refund of this program."  

The builders' testimony had an obvious affect on Sparks and the rest of the police commission. The president noted she grew more and more disturbed as the stories piled atop one another -- a point fellow commissioners made as well. Sparks seemed most concerned with charges of selective enforcement and "the whole due process issue is very troubling to me. It doesn't sound like there was any due process." 

Sparks asked Deputy Police Chief Kevin Cashman for "a detailed overview" of the SPOT program to be presenteed in two week's time -- along with a command performance from MTA personnel, to explain how they will administer the program. Sparks also bandied about the possibility of a Management Control Division (internal affairs) investigation of the whole SPOT program.

The notion of such a complete accounting of the program tickled Joe Cassidy -- though he still wants his money back.

Regarding the pending report, he noted with a chuckle, "There'll be some people ducking for cover, that's for sure."

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About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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