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Politics & Policy

San Francisco ‘Hill Bomb’ arrests: Heavy-handed or a welcome show of force?

Source: Kyle Martin for The Standard

The mass arrests of more than 110 people—most of them teenagers—at an unsanctioned skateboarding event Saturday in San Francisco has unified opposing political factions in criticizing the use of department resources and prompted an investigation.

For some, the arrests—the largest single sweep by San Francisco police in recent memory—have led to questions about whether the presence of officers in riot gear escalated a situation that could have resolved with less turmoil. Conversely, others have wondered why San Francisco hasn’t shown the same aggressive zeal in tackling the city’s real crises, such as open-air drug markets and rampant property crime.

While police brass and City Hall officials have for years bemoaned police staffing shortages, the department threw a considerable amount of time, money and manpower into shutting down Saturday’s “Hill Bomb,” an annual tradition that sends skateboarders screaming down a street next to Dolores Park.

Past events have resulted in vandalism, serious injuries and even a fatal collision, but nothing back then came close to the show of police force seen Saturday.

Scores of young people were detained and taken to the police department’s Mission Station after fireworks and other projectiles were launched at officers and vandalism halted public transit operations in the area. The show of force and mass arrests seem to reflect an emerging trend of tougher law enforcement in San Francisco.

San Francisco police in riot gear form a line on Saturday on Dolores Street at 19th Street during the unsanctioned annual skateboarding "hill bomb" by Dolores Park in San Francisco. | Kyle Martin for The Standard | Source: Kyle Martin for The Standard

‘It Just Went Downhill’

In an interview Monday, Police Chief Bill Scott said the goal of the Hill Bomb operation was to prevent skateboarders from taking control of Dolores Street to ensure public safety—not to make mass arrests. He described the annual skateboarding event as a growing issue that has “terrified” neighbors in recent years.

When police initially barricaded Dolores Street, Scott said, officers were not wearing helmets, shields or other riot gear. He said his officers were patient with the crowd and gave them time to blow off steam. But the situation spun out of control when a sergeant was spat upon and punched with a “sharp object” by two teenagers shortly after 7 p.m.

“It just went downhill from there,” Scott said.

As officers moved in to arrest the two teens who attacked the sergeant, the crowd responded by throwing lit fireworks and smoke bombs at police, according to the department. The situation then turned “riotous,” Scott said, with gunshots going off in the area and people jumping on and vandalizing passing Muni trains.

Police ultimately arrested 81 juveniles and 32 adults on suspicion of inciting a riot and other charges. The minors were cited and released, though many were reportedly held until the wee hours of Sunday morning.

“In San Francisco, we welcome public events that are conducted safely. This event was not that,” Mayor London Breed’s Office said in a statement. “People assaulted police officers, set fires, and vandalized property, including Muni vehicles.”

The statement added, “No one at this event was arrested for skateboarding.”

The officers’ response was not improvised; Scott confirmed that the department command staff planned a response ahead of time, although top City Hall officials—including the mayor—were not informed of that plan, Scott and the Mayor’s Office said.

The operation required a mix of officers from different assignments, including some investigators and officers with the tactical unit, on overtime and regular-duty pay, Scott said. A police spokesperson declined to say exactly how many officers were involved.

Police Chief Bill Scott attends a press conference in San Francisco on Jan. 26, 2023, at the Lady Shaw Senior Center in Chinatown. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

“This was a situation, because of what has happened in the past, that we deployed very heavily,” Scott said.

Emergency dispatchers also set up a dedicated channel for the area ahead of time, according to the Department of Emergency Management.

The arrests spurred at least one complaint to the Department of Police Accountability. Paul Henderson, the director of the police watchdog agency, declined to provide details on the complaint but he said the police watchdog agency has launched an investigation and it will likely be more labor intensive than usual.

Police Commissioner Kevin Benedicto said he was troubled by the broad use of police resources for the Hill Bomb event, as well as the possibility that police escalated the situation by donning riot gear.

“We can’t have a situation where people are spitting at officers or swinging at officers,” Benedicto said. “But when you are putting 50 officers in proximity to them, it’s increasing the chances that something like that is going to happen.”

Scott said his officers only put on riot gear to protect themselves.

“We have to look at the behavior of the people that were breaking the law and not just at what the officers were wearing,” Scott said. “If this thing had been peaceful, officers would have never put on the helmets.”

Protesters, who declined to give their names, hold skateboards during a protest against the San Francisco Police Department's actions from a day earlier at the Dolores Park Hill Bomb. | Juliana Yamada for The Standard | Source: Juliana Yamada for The Standard

Emergency calls from the Mission Police District spiked during the Hill Bomb event, San Francisco dispatcher Brianna Jones told The Standard. The 911 calls focused less on skateboarders and more on incidents happening on the periphery of the event.

One man frantically called 911 after getting into a verbal argument with some kids he had asked to stop setting fireworks off near his house, said Jones, who was working at the city’s dispatch center that evening. In response, the man told dispatchers, the kids began shooting fireworks toward the man’s house.

The median police response time for Priority A calls—when there is an imminent danger to life or major property damage—was 8.6 minutes between 4 p.m. and 11:45 p.m., data shows. The city’s standard response time goal is eight minutes for Priority A requests.

However, response times for lower-priority calls stretched well beyond city goals during that period. It took San Francisco police a median of 41 minutes to respond to Priority B calls, which include situations when there is still a potential for damage to property or the suspect may be in the area. That’s more than double the city’s goal of 20 minutes.

For Priority C calls, which include incidents that don’t pose any danger, it took police a median of 230 minutes to respond on Saturday afternoon and evening. That’s nearly four times the department’s 60-minute standard.

‘They Knew It Was Going To Happen’

The arrests Saturday occurred as police have taken a more aggressive approach to combating the deadly overdose crisis. Over the last year, the department has been cracking down on street corner drug markets by targeting users in addition to dealers while attempting to curb the fencing of stolen goods.

San Francisco police officers Singh and Lopez talk with people sitting on the sidewalk while patrolling in the Tenderloin District of San Francisco on March 15, 2022. | Nick Otto | Source: Nick Otto for The Standard

Breed has amped up her rhetoric about the need to be tougher on crime, and District Attorney Brooke Jenkins has followed suit by more aggressively charging drug arrests, particularly for those using fentanyl and other substances on the street. 

Jeffrey Kwong, president of the Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club, slammed the department’s actions on Saturday. He said the deployment of so many officers comes as the department has also seen budget increases in recent years, including a $25 million supplemental budget to support overtime operations.

“They’re now using and abusing their resources, attacking an event that is an annual tradition that happens every year,” Kwong said. “They knew it was going to happen.” 

But in an ironic twist, even some of Breed’s more ardent supporters in the moderate wing of city politics took to social media to question Saturday’s response. However, instead of worrying about the heavy-handedness, they are instead calling for a similar boots-on-the-ground strategy to confront the drug markets in the Tenderloin and South of Market neighborhoods. 

“There have been situations where law enforcement has been deployed into the Tenderloin and completely cleared everyone out,” said Jeff Cretan, a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office. “The hard part is sustaining it, and that’s where we need the resources. The mayor is pushing for the resources to make that happen.”

The city is deploying a new strategy that has enlisted the help of sheriff’s deputies, the California Highway Patrol and analysts from the National Guard.

Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, whose district includes Dolores Park, said the Hill Bomb is a “problematic event,” and he didn’t have any qualms with the police response, noting that the lone injury reported came from the officer who was spit upon and suffered facial lacerations.

“I think it just shows the San Francisco Police Department is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t,” Mandelman said.

A man with a bullhorn yells during a protest in San Francisco.
Tatum Wymer speaks into a megaphone during a protest on July 9, 2023, over the San Francisco Police Department's actions at the Dolores Park 'Hill Bomb.' | Juliana Yamada for The Standard | Source: Juliana Yamada for The Standard

He compared the recent clampdown on the Hill Bomb to the cancellation of the annual Halloween party in the Castro District, which city officials ended after a shooting in 2006 killed nine people. Even if Hill Bomb supporters tried to acquire a city permit for the event in the future, it would be unlikely to be approved for multiple reasons, Mandelman said. Skate culture isn’t exactly known for doing things by the book, and incidents in recent years would make neighborhood opposition all but certain.

Kevin Ortiz, co-president of the San Francisco Latinx Democratic Club, believes the department’s response on Saturday—coming just days after officers dispersed a crowd of revelers on July 4 who were illegally setting off fireworks—is part of a troubling trend.

“This is one of two incidents in the span of a week,” Ortiz said. “We’re talking about our annual traditions on the Fourth of July celebration, to have over 100 police officers come in just over midnight and disperse an entire crowd, and then to go after teenagers, to go after minors, to go after 113 people arrested, 81 of them who were minors? … It is immoral, it is wrong and there needs to be accountability for what happened there.”

George Kelly and Noah Baustin contributed to this story.