Are SF law enforcement cracking down on drug addicts? Senior officials send mixed messages


This week, at an otherwise routine meeting of the San Francisco Police Board, Police Chief Bill Scott made a startling admission.

The police, Scott said, had been tasked with cracking down on drug use in the city’s Tenderloin neighborhood in an effort to curb outdoor drug use and trafficking in the beleaguered neighborhood. The directive marked a change in the department’s historic approach to drug addicts who may possess paraphernalia or small quantities of drugs not intended for resale.

A federal grant that allowed police to beef up staff and overtime this month allowed officers to “engage” with visible drug users, Scott said.

The new mandate appeared to produce an immediate effect, according to publicly available city data. So far this month, San Francisco police have issued tickets or made arrests in 129 cases involving a standalone allegation of possession of drug paraphernalia, compared to 89 issued throughout 2021 and first six months of 2022 combined.

As San Francisco wrestles with how to solve the Tenderloin’s lingering miseries — with warring factions largely insisting on treating the issue as a criminal matter or a public health crisis — Scott’s directive seemed to clash with how the district attorney newly appointed Brooke Jenkins said her office would. deal with relatively minor drug-related offences.

Debate over how to address the Tenderloin’s longstanding problems has been exacerbated by an outbreak of fentanyl that keeps a grip on the neighborhood and contributed to the city’s recent average of two overdose deaths a day. While San Francisco politicians have long favored a treatment-based approach to drug addiction over incarceration, the desperation visible in the Tenderloin and the crimes that accompany it have prompted some weary residents to call for tougher action. law enforcement.

Jenkins, just a day before Scott told the public about his department’s new approach to treating outdoor drug addicts, said his office planned to dismiss at least 17 cases in which people were wrongly accused of possess drug paraphernalia.

Jenkins’ office made an unequivocal statement on the matter: “It is office policy not to charge for standalone drug paraphernalia cases.”

The public statements, made by the city’s top law enforcement officials a day apart, highlight what appear to be conflicting approaches between two departments designed to work in concert on their crime strategies.

Kevin Benedicto, a San Francisco police commissioner, said the comments have caused confusion about how the city’s justice system deals with drug-related crimes.

“I think there’s definitely a disconnect,” Benedicto said. “And we’re interested in getting to the bottom of it.”

Benedicto said police commissioners initially questioned Scott about drug strategies because of paraphernalia cases the DA’s office filed and summarily dismissed. They wondered if there was a connection between Jenkins’ oath promises to crack down on open-air drug markets in the Tenderloin and a subsequent police response.

Benedicto said the commissioners were unaware of the grant funding until Scott revealed it on Wednesday, suggesting the timing of the two events may have been coincidental.

Scott said the grant was awarded by the Department of Justice and provided $125,000 to support overtime and staffing at the long-suffering Tenderloin.

“We want to be able, as best we can, to have a culture or an environment in our city where people don’t believe they can just smoke fentanyl – or whatever the pick of the day is – without being hired by a San. Francisco Police Officer,” Scott said during the commission meeting.

Scott said that recognizance could take the form of an arrest or a citation, and that police would seize the drugs used.

“One of the primary goals is outdoor response, both through community engagement … and enforcement where appropriate,” he said.

Scott said funding for the grant ends next month.

In a statement to The Chronicle, Jenkins said “close collaboration with our police department is essential in dealing with our outdoor drug markets and overdose crisis,” and added that she had met Scott on Friday.

“We are both committed to advancing strategies that will help people with addictions get the help they need,” Jenkins said. “My goal remains to hold serious drug dealers, especially those who sell fentanyl, accountable for the deadly drugs they sell.”

Jenkins, who was sworn in on July 8 after helping oust his predecessor and former boss Chesa Boudin in last month’s recall election, pledged to take a tough but compassionate approach to the crisis in city ​​opioids, which killed more than 1,300 people. between 2020 and 2021.

Jenkins was a vocal critic of Boudin’s progressive policies, which she described as too lenient, but also said she would prioritize high-level traffickers and repeat offenders over minor drug offenses – a much like Boudin’s stated approach to drug crimes.

But while details of his specific drug policies have yet to be made public, Jenkins’ first directive signaled an overhaul of the day-to-day operations seen under Boudin: Prosecutors were tasked with compiling a list of offers of plea pending on drug charges. , with the aim of revoking some of the agreements extended but not yet accepted.

Advocates for people with addictions have expressed concern that Jenkins’ policies would signal a return to tough-on-crime strategies that have helped skyrocket prison populations and have done little to curb the drug epidemic. Both Jenkins and Scott said they didn’t want to open a new front in the war on drugs, but said more needed to be done to tackle rampant trafficking and use on the streets of San Francisco.

In a statement to The Chronicle, a police spokesperson said officers “will continue to make arrests regardless of what the DA chooses to do with these cases.”

“As law enforcement partners, the Chief and DA will continue to work together in the interest of public safety,” said Officer Robert Rueca.

“The Chief and the DA work together to handle the city’s biggest public safety issues and that includes cases surrounding narcotics crimes,” Rueca said.

Megan Cassidy and Susie Neilson are the editors of the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected], [email protected] Twitter: @meganrcassidy, @susieneilson


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