SF cops at a loss to check out young suspects

By Jaxon Van Derbeken
The San Francisco Chronicle

SAN FRANCISCO San Francisco police who stop juvenile criminal suspects on the street have no way of checking whether the youths are on probation, have been ordered to stay away from problem areas or are wanted for a probation violation basic information that influences whether officers take the juveniles into custody or turn them loose.

Authorities say officers can't learn those critical details because of a long-running clash between the Police Department and the city's Juvenile Probation Department over youths' criminal records and who, if anyone, should enter them into city tracking systems for law enforcement officers.

As a result, when San Francisco officers are unable to contact juvenile authorities about a youthful suspect's record, police are forced to rely on the word of the suspects themselves.

Police Capt. Marsha Ashe of the juvenile division, who oversees the investigators assigned to cases involving suspects under 18, said not knowing basic facts involving young offenders is more than simply frustrating for officers it also poses a risk to their safety.

"It is important for our officers to know," Ashe said. "It is an officer-safety issue. It allows our officers to do a more responsible job. If they encounter a kid who is on probation at 2 a.m., they will look at the situation differently.''

City officials admitted there was a problem in a recent draft report for Mayor Gavin Newsom on the city's juvenile justice system. The report, prepared by Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice, concluded: "Police officers on the street do not have any readily available information on youth they encounter. They do not know if the juvenile is already on probation, or if they have a stay-away order, or if a prior warrant for that youth has been recalled.''

Authorities say such information is routinely available to police in other cities. In San Francisco, the system is spotty at best.

Ashe said the problem is far from new. She dates it to 1999, when the Juvenile Probation Department created its own computer system. In the process, police lost the ability to run checks on their own computers on juveniles on the street.

Neither police nor juvenile officials say they have the staff to re-enter the information on juveniles into the Police Department's criminal tracking database.

"There has not been the will to fix the problem," Ashe said. "I think that Juvenile Probation would work very cooperatively with police to get that information into the system, if there is a political will to get that done."

The head of the Juvenile Probation Department said police should be the ones to enter the information into the computer, but in the meantime, he will provide them a "paper copy'' of probation cases.

"Probation is just the carrier of the information," said Chief Probation Officer Bill Siffermann. "The issue at hand here is, who has the staff? We are certainly not going to enter it into the police system. We don't have the staff to do it. ... Why would we assign someone to do their work?''

He called the situation a "clerical impasse." He said the paper copies of the information will soon be provided to police, meaning that officers "will have all the information available.''

As for the computer entry, Ashe said the Police Department does not have people trained to enter data on juveniles' probation status.

"We are not going to be doing data entry for probation," she said. "It is their responsibility."

Siffermann said the key to solving the problem is coming up with a computer system that "combines the two departments. I know there have recent discussions about the need for this and the mayor is interested in advancing this.''

Nathan Ballard, a spokesman for Newsom, said Monday that solving the problem is a top priority.

"The mayor's office has asked Juvenile Probation and the Police Department to work together to share information more effectively,'' Ballard said. "Effective immediately, Juvenile Probation will begin providing information in the form of hard copies of the files to the Police Department.''

The city's problems with information sharing could have made a difference in the case of Orlando Anthony Ware Jr., a 17-year-old who was set free from San Francisco juvenile hall earlier this year despite a string of alleged probation violations. Within days of his release, Ware was in custody in connection with a homicide in San Francisco.

Ware had been sent to live with his father in the East Bay and ordered to abide by a curfew. However, police in San Francisco had no idea that Ware was covered by a curfew and other restrictions because no one entered that information in the police computer systems.

Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi says no one can give him a satisfactory explanation for why the city can't solve the problem.

"It's completely unfathomable,'' he said. "The responsibility ultimately lies with the mayor's office to mediate this.

"It's never been about money," Mirkarimi said. "It's simply about will or the absence thereof.''

Ballard said the Newsom administration had inherited the problem and was working to fix it.

"We don't want this to happen again,'' he said of the Ware case. "We are committed to improving interagency communication.''

Mirkarimi said the ability to track juveniles easily could help police get a handle on truancy in city schools. In announcing an anti-truancy campaign last fall, Newsom said that "truant individuals disproportionately engage in the kinds of criminal activities and social activities that are becoming a real problem in San Francisco."

Mirkarimi said Monday, "If we can't deal with chronic truancy, why and how do we expect to deal with a more complex problems or crimes associated with juveniles?"

Copyright 2007 San Francisco Chronicle

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