Out captain heads Tenderloin police station

  • by Seth Hemmelgarn
  • Wednesday July 8, 2015
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An out lesbian now heads the Tenderloin police station, which oversees a diverse San Francisco district known for crime and poverty.

Along with the challenges of tackling issues like drug dealing and people with mental health issues, Captain Teresa Ewins is facing the expansion of the station boundaries.

But Ewins, a 20-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department whose first day as station captain was Saturday, June 27, seems undaunted by the work ahead of her.

"It will be a great district," she said.

Both sides of busy Market Street, from Third Street to South Van Ness Avenue, are likely to be included in the district by late July. The expanded area would include Westfield San Francisco Centre mall at Market and Fifth streets.

"Absorbing Westfield Mall will be a difference for the Tenderloin," Ewins said, but with "intelligent, smart" policing and staffing, "we're definitely up for the challenge. ... We're going to make it work."

The proposed changes to the Tenderloin and other police districts are driven by several factors, including expected population growth. Additionally, the Board of Supervisors has required the district station boundaries be analyzed every 10 years.

Drug dealing and auto burglary are among the crimes in the district's proposed new territory, and Ewins noted her officers already deal with those types of problems.

It hasn't been decided yet whether the western end of Tenderloin station will stay at Larkin Street or go to Polk Street, which is crowded with bars and restaurants.

Ewins, 49, is one of only a handful of lesbians to reach the rank of captain, and she's the first woman to lead Tenderloin station. She takes over from Captain Jason Cherniss.

In an email to residents June 22, Cherniss said he'd "made the heart wrenching decision to leave" his Tenderloin post "to attend to some difficult personal matters."

He added, "The trajectory of the Tenderloin neighborhood is a good one."

The Hoodline news site recently reported that Cherniss had had shoulder surgery and was joining the Bay Area Urban Areas Security Initiative, which is connected to the city's Department of Emergency Management Services and, according to its website, works on preparations related to "terrorist incidents and catastrophic events."

Cherniss wasn't available for comment, but in an email, Catherine Spaulding, the initiative's assistant general manager, said the SFPD has assigned Cherniss to her agency as the police liaison.

Among other posts, Ewins has previously served in Southern station, which includes the South of Market neighborhood; Mission station, the district that oversees most of the Castro area; and Bayview, Northern, and Tenderloin stations. She's also worked in the SFPD's homeland security division and headed the SFPD's special investigations division, which includes hate crimes and other incidents.

Ewins was promoted to captain last August and oversaw the special victims unit. Before taking over Tenderloin station last month, she worked in the tactical unit.

When she met with a reporter Thursday, June 25, she was still wearing the blue jumpsuit and black boots that are part of that unit's attire. She introduced herself as "Teresa" to several station staffers as a strand of hair hung loose from her ponytail, indicating she's among the "working cops" she lauded during the interview. She also said the station's scores of officers are "very motivated" and "doing a great job."


Drugs, other issues

Anyone who's walked through the Tenderloin has likely had the experience of being offered drugs for sale at all hours of the day and night.

Ewins said addressing drug dealing involves "making it difficult for them to sell."

The station will look at foot, bike, and patrol car beats to see "how can we do it better and be more effective," she said.

However, Ewins added, while "having a presence on the street is obviously a deterrent," it can also be important to get people help.

Part of an officer's job is "having conversations with these young men and women about what their choices are," she said, including when officers are arresting people.

"If we need to get people into programs, that's what we'll focus on," Ewins said. That's especially the case for young people, to show them "there's something more they can do with their lives" than dealing drugs.

One project Ewins points to as a recent success is "a join effort" involving Tenderloin station and others to address "a major issue with drug dealing" on Leavenworth Street.

Several people were arrested, which Ewins said has "made a very large impact."

Another concern has been people struggling with mental health issues, many of whom are homeless. Ewins said she's been talking to Bevan Dufty, who serves as director of Housing Opportunity, Partnerships and Engagement for Mayor Ed Lee, to look at the services available to people.

Dufty, who's gay and served for years as the supervisor of District 8, which includes the Castro, said he's worked with Ewins "for almost 20 years."

"I have the highest regard for her professional capability, her work ethic, and her creative problem solving, and Tenderloin station requires all three," he said. With Ewins' "experiences at special investigations and the special victims unit, I think she's had high-level leadership experience. Tenderloin station has a lot of complex issues, but the captain is often the person right in the center pulling the city together to address the issues or work through a problem. ... She's uniquely qualified to take those challenges on."

Whatever issue is being dealt with, Ewins spoke of the importance of working with other police stations and city agencies.

"It has to be a solution to the problem so it doesn't become somebody else's problem," Ewins said.

Another important element is district residents, business owners, and others.

"Without community involvement, we can't do our jobs," Ewins said. "There's no way."

The district, which is home to many low-income people living with HIV and AIDS living in single-room occupancy hotels, hasn't yet seen as much redevelopment as other parts of the city, but Ewins said, "Everything is changing pretty rapidly," with the arrival of new restaurants and other changes.

Noting the area's rich diversity, she said she's "excited" to lead the station. With its problems, many people steer clear of the neighborhood, but the Tenderloin "is not a bad place you should fear," she said.

Aja Monet, 45, a gay longtime Tenderloin resident who often spoke to Cherniss about problems in the district, said he's seen transgender women in the neighborhood being harassed. It doesn't happen "a lot," Monet said, but "a person should be able to feel free to walk around the neighborhood" without being verbally attacked.

Verbal attacks can sometimes lead to hate-related physical assaults, although there haven't been any recent reports involving LGBT victims in the Tenderloin.

Ewins said advocates have told her that hate crimes are underreported. She said it may be helpful that people know "they have somebody that they can go to," and it's possible "having somebody that's out" like her will "make it more comfortable for them."

Ewins, who lives in the East Bay and whose annual compensation a city website lists as $187,954, recently divorced. She said after July 4, she'd switch from the surname Gracie to Ewins. She may be reached at [email protected].