SFPD efforts to fight opioid epidemic in question as police net drug arrests

Police in San Francisco have seized more than 125 pounds of narcotics and $500,000 in drug money so far this year, the latest numbers on police efforts to curb the opioid crisis show.

A targeted operation in the Tenderloin and South of Market netted 62 drug arrests in a single week last month, Cmdr. David Lazar said at the most recent Police Commission hearing last Wednesday.

Yet drug users continue to inject on city sidewalks and the usual street corners remain open-air drug markets. Several members of the Police Commission questioned the merits of the enforcement efforts.

“We know that jail isn’t working,” Police Commissioner Cindy Elias said at the hearing. “It’s very frustrating for officers who see these people day in and day out, even if they arrest them it’s not making a difference.”

Lazar said enforcement is just the first of two strategies the San Francisco Police Department has employed to address the opioid crisis. Officers have also referred 53 drug abusers to services including shelter so far this year.

“We really need to make a change and focus on the second half of the strategy,” said Police Commissioner John Hamasaki.

Elias commended the use of the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion pilot program for officers at Mission and Tenderloin stations to connect users with services as an alternative to making drug arrests.

“We’re finding that other cooperative efforts are actually having a greater impact,” Elias said.

Other commissioners called on the department to limit the drug supply to The City through increased cooperation in targeted narcotics operations with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.

“No one is going to fight the War on Drugs arresting a bunch of dime-bag dealers,” Police Commissioner Damali Taylor said. “A few thousands dollars might mean something to them, but it means nothing to the cartels.”

SFPD Chief Bill Scott said the department is seeking to increase the number of officers who are deployed on investigations with the DEA.

“We have a number of investigations going as we speak,” Scott said. “We have a number in the pipeline that we have already begun to strategize on.”

Elias said she had “grave concerns” about working closer with federal authorities.

A joint operation between the SFPD and DEA targeting suspected drug dealers in the Tenderloin between 2013 and 2015 resulted in the arrests of 37 people, all of whom were black. Last month, the ACLU sued The City alleging selective enforcement.

“Some of our officers got caught up in that and it was not a good look for our department,” Elias said.

Scott called on the commission to be patient in terms of seeing progress on the streets because of the nature of addiction.

“Sometimes enforcement is the answer to get them off the streets and get them in a better place,” Scott said. “Sometimes they are willing to go without that. But one of the things that we are committed to doing is working with all these other city agencies and service providers.”

mbarba@sfexaminer.com

Michael Barba
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