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Politics & Policy

San Francisco street inspectors beg city for help to deal with armed stolen-goods dealers

A person is sifting through various items including Advil, coffee, wipes, and laundry detergent along Mission Street in San Francisco, with people walking by in the background.
Ofelia Torres sells various items on Mission Street on Aug. 5, 2022. | Source: Justin Katigbak for The Standard

San Francisco employees responsible for enforcing regulations against illegal vending made an emotional appeal to city lawmakers for policy changes, relating harrowing stories of how they are regularly exposed to violence and threats from people selling stolen goods on the street. 

The call came from several San Francisco Department of Public Works employees—many wearing their safety jackets emblazoned with the DPW logo and some wearing masks or not giving their names out of fear of retaliation—who took turns speaking during the public comment portion of Tuesday’s meeting of the Board of Supervisors. 

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Teresa McNamara, who identified herself as a senior street inspector who has worked for the city for 12 years, tearfully recounted how her illegal vending enforcement assignment “has broken my spirit and enthusiasm. … My mental health is suffering, and sadly, it’s affecting my family and friends, too, as they watch me cry and struggle with panic attacks that I never had before.” 

McNamara then detailed the main issue with her work.

“The problem is the vendor enforcement assignment makes no distinction between legitimate street vendors and armed people with stolen goods,” she said, adding that she and her colleagues are often put in the position of impounding goods from people “under the influence of drugs or experiencing mental health issues.”

Another inspector described being regularly exposed to violence.

An anonymous San Francisco Department of Public Works employee testifies at the Nov.7 Board of Supervisors meeting. Courtesy SFGovTV

“I have personally been involved in tug-of-wars with unpermitted offenders,” they said, adding they “have been spat on and verbally threatened with violent racist language regularly and physically assaulted. … I’m hypervigilant that I will end up being doxed while doing my duty as a public servant; we are put out there at least once a week for shifts that can last an hour to an entire day.” 

The inspectors take issue with enforcing laws against illegal vending while under the constraints of SB 946, also known as the “Safe Sidewalk Vending Act,” passed in 2018 to decriminalize street vending and allow cities to regulate the practice with civil enforcement.

A photo of shampoos, toothpaste, laundry detergent, and other goods is spread across the concrete sidewalk on Mission Street in San Francisco.
A vendor sells a variety of goods a vendoron Mission Street on Aug. 5, 2022. | Source: Justin Katigbak for The Standard

But in enforcing local rules, including regulations passed by San Francisco supervisors in March 2022 to deal with increased street sales of stolen goods, Public Works inspectors, who are unarmed civilians, are exposed to violence from street fences. The city employees have been agitating for police to take over the duty since July, citing the dangers. Street vending on Mission was finally banned last month, despite pushback from vendors

RELATED: San Francisco Wants To Ban Street Vendors for 90 Days on Mission Street. Vendors Aren’t Having It

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.”

The pleas prompted an unusually direct response from board President Aaron Peskin.

“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,” he 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. … [state Sen.] Scott Weiner, [Assemblymember] Phil Ting and [Assemblymember] Matt Haney should go carry a bill to give us back our former powers because right now this entire scheme is a joke.”