by Amy Julia Harris, The Bay Citizen
The head of San Francisco’s juvenile probation department, troubled by a Mission District shooting between police and a former juvenile offender, is weighing whether to allow probation officers who deal with young criminals to begin carrying handguns.
William Siffermann, San Francisco’s chief juvenile probation officer, is quietly attempting to build support for the idea of arming a handful of officers who deal with the most violent offenders. He plans to raise the issue in January at a meeting of the Juvenile Probation Commission, which oversees his department.
“In my 42 years of experience, I have never seen a more critical need to provide us with an increased level of safety,” Siffermann told The Bay Citizen. “I can’t wait for something to happen and then have someone who has fallen in harm’s way say, ‘Chief, you knew officers were at risk, and you did nothing.’”
Most probation officers who handle adult and juvenile cases around the state have the authority to carry handguns. Nevertheless, Siffermann has been exceedingly cautious in floating the idea in San Francisco, where opposition to handguns in general is high.
“My goal is to create the foundation for the careful development of a plan that would provide a limited number of juvenile probation officers … with concomitant safety measures, including firearms,” he wrote in a email.
San Francisco has 45 probation officers who oversee about 1,000 juveniles in the only stand-alone youth probation department in California. Siffermann said he is considering arming a small, but unspecified, number of officers who monitor violent offenders on probation for crimes such as homicide, battery and assault. None of San Francisco’s youth probation officers now carry guns.
Siffermann said a Sept. 20 shooting while two juvenile probation officers were on patrol prompted him to contemplate giving his officers guns.
The probation officers were working with armed San Francisco police officers in the Mission District when they recognized a 22-year-old who previously had been under the department’s supervision.
When police approached the man, a known gang member, he pointed a Tec-9 machine pistol at them, according to the police report of the incident. One police officer shot the man and injured him, the report said. San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón and the police department are investigating the shooting.
Siffermann said changes in state policy also have made the job of his officers more hazardous, shifting authority for many juvenile offenders released from state custody to county probation departments.
“We’re monitoring individuals coming out of (the state Division of Juvenile Justice) who were convicted of murder,” Siffermann said.
Some youth advocates in San Francisco, however, oppose arming juvenile probation officers for fear it would escalate the level of violence in the city.
Kimo Uila, co-chairman of San Francisco’s Juvenile Justice Providers Association, a group of community organizations that provide assistance to youths in the juvenile justice system, worries that giving even one officer a gun would change the culture of youth probation.
“You give one gun to a probation officer and it opens a Pandora’s box for everyone to want guns,” Uila said. “We support keeping probation officers safe, but we don’t support bringing more guns into the city.”