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Newsom praises new San Francisco police chief as crime rate drops in 2009

Homicides down 54%, violent crime drops 10% over 2008 totals

An ebullient Mayor Gavin Newsom heaped praise on San Francisco's new police chief Tuesday morning as he announced a year of fewer murders, less violence and an overall drop in crime throughout the city.

While some numbers are still being tabulated, Newsom said the year produced "a remarkable reduction" in homicides, violent crimes and theft.

San Francisco has seen 45 homicides so far this year, compared to 99 reported in 2008 - a reduction of 54 percent. Violent crime across the city dropped 10 percent compared to last year, police said.

"You'll have to go back to 1961 to find a lower homicide rate," Newsom said at a news conference at City Hall Tuesday morning.

The city is still determining precisely how many 2009 murders remain unsolved. Newsom said the clearance rate is "definitely north of 60 percent, probably in the 70 percent range."

Auto thefts in the city were down 18 percent compared to 2008. Rapes are down by 8 percent, robberies by 14 percent, and aggravated assault by 4 percent, according to police.

Reported crimes have also dropped significantly in neighborhoods that have "traditionally been the most vexing and challenging," Newsom said. In the Bayview District, homicides are down 42 percent and violent crime is down 17 percent. In the Mission District, homicides are down 75 percent and violent crimes are down 13 percent, according to the mayor's office.

These improvements have been a trend for the past 18 to 20 months, according to Newsom. The mayor said his excitement over the numbers made it difficult to wait until the end of the year to release them.

Newsom said many factors are driving the drop in crime. He estimated that the city has initiated between 20 and 30 new safety-related programs in the past few years.

"You reach a point where these things start taking shape and paying off," he said.

He said community policing has helped greatly, and that improved medical care has prevented some shooting victims from turning into homicide victims.

Technology has also played a role, Newsom said. The city's ShotSpotter gunshot detection system now monitors 3.3 square miles of the city, mainly in the Mission, and will expand to cover 15 square miles in the Tenderloin and Potrero Hill in 2010, Newsom said.

He praised the men and women of the San Francisco Police Department for their hard work, saying "better policing than I've seen in years is taking place in this city."

However, Newsom reserved his highest praise - and expectations - for Police Chief George Gascon.

"I have great confidence Chief Gascon, the command staff and the rank and file will do better next year," he said. "The best is yet to come."

After some frustrating crime rates in recent years, San Francisco is "turning the page," he said.

San Francisco's homicide rate remained unchanged between 2007 and 2008; the city saw 99 murders for both of those years, according to police.

Gascon can't take all the credit for the crime drop, however, having headed the department only since August, when he took over for former Chief Heather Fong after she announced her retirement.

The new chief said some of the improvements are the result of "focusing on the right places at the right time."

A study commissioned by the department found that most of the city's crime occurs within 2 percent of its landmass and is caused by a relatively small segment of the population.

The city also has a violence reduction plan that covers everything from strictly enforcing court orders, like gang injunctions, and bringing suspects into custody swiftly after a bench warrant has been issued.

Newsom acknowledged that the drop in murder rates provides little solace for the families of victims.

However, Gascon noted that reduced rates of rape, robbery, auto thefts and aggravated assaults mean "hundreds of people are walking around the city who have not been victims of crime."

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