By Sydney Johnson and Benjamin Schneider
Examiner staff writers
At a press conference Tuesday announcing a slate of new public safety policies, Mayor London Breed signaled a fundamental shift in The City’s approach to crime and drug use with unusually strong rhetoric.
“It’s time that the reign of criminals who are destroying our city, it is time for it to come to an end,” Breed said. “And it comes to an end when we take the steps to be more aggressive with law enforcement … and less tolerant of all the bullsh*t that has destroyed our city.”
Breed announced several new policies designed to combat drug dealing, outdoor drug use, shoplifting and the sale of stolen goods. Breed’s plan also calls for new investments in the safety and beautification of the Tenderloin, as well as increases in police funding and staffing.
Breed compared the plan, which will be coordinated by the Department of Emergency Management, to the City’s response to the pandemic, calling it an emergency.
Broadly, the proposal calls for a multi-tiered three-month intervention as well as increased overtime funding for police presence in the Tenderloin. One of the most controversial shifts would be to ramp up enforcement of open-air drug sales and use.
“We are not going to just walk by and let someone use in broad daylight,” Breed said. The new approach would give drug users “a choice between going to the location we have identified for them or going to jail.”
The intensified police presence approach to drugs is a stark contrast to programs like the Street Crisis Response Team, which launched in November 2020 as an alternative to police to respond to mental health and substance use crises on the streets.
The proposal is likely to be met with frustration among those who say increasing police presence will make drug dealing and use more secretive and dangerous, and that many individuals experiencing homelessness already have had negative experiences with police and health care systems.
More than 6,000 overdose deaths have been prevented in San Francisco this year through community-based distribution of naloxone, a medication that reverses opioid overdoses, according to data provided by the DOPE project, a harm reduction nonprofit.
“We are a city that prides ourselves on second chances,” Breed said. But “our compassion should not be confused for weakness or indifference.”
The mayor’s proposal includes a “Tenderloin Emergency Plan” that would implement infrastructural repairs to make the streets safer, like fixing lights and adding more garbage bins and public toilets. It would also set up a temporary resource hub to help connect people with drug use disorders to medical and mental health treatment. It’s unclear how this plan relates to The City’s ongoing efforts to open a safe consumption site for drug use sometime next year.
The mayor also wants to change The City’s surveillance ordinance so SFPD no longer needs Board of Supervisors approval to obtain and use camera technology. In an attempt to curb retail theft, the plan would create an “exclusion zone” for street vending in locations such as United Nations Plaza.
The final phase of the proposal will focus on sustaining these public safety strategies over the long-term and securing ongoing funding for neighborhood beautification, community ambassadors along Market Street and overtime for police.
The call for increased police funding is a notable shift from Breed’s stance in 2020 when she redirected funds from law enforcement to support the African American community.
“There are areas in this city that need constant, 24-hour police presence,” said SFPD Chief William Scott at the press conference. “From the lips of people who play and work in this city to my ears, this is what I’m hearing over and over again.”
Breed acknowledged her proposals are likely to spark controversy, but sounded a note of determination that she wouldn’t be swayed by critics.
“What I’m proposing today, and what I will be proposing in the future, will make a lot of people uncomfortable. And I don’t care,” she said. “We can’t keep doing the same thing and expecting a different result. And every day we let things linger, our residents are suffering.”
Whether Breed’s rhetoric tracks with the scale of San Francisco’s drug and crime problems is a matter of debate. According to the latest San Francisco Police Department data, homicides are up 15% compared to the same period last year, and larceny thefts are up 18%. Burglary and motor vehicle theft are down slightly.
Despite a small decrease from last year, fatal drug overdoses remain at historic highs; 545 between January and October. Following national trends, homicide and other violent crimes in San Francisco are down significantly since the mid-2000s.
Breed hinted at the attention The City has received from the national media for its crime, drug and homelessness problems, saying she hopes to “change the narrative about what people say about San Francisco.”
She also suggested this effort is now her top priority as mayor: “I want each and every person in this city to know this work and what we are going to do to turn around how people feel in San Francisco is the most important thing to me.”