San Francisco’s strong response to Tenderloin drug and crime emergency is long overdue

SF Mayor Breed plans police-led crackdown on meth, fentanyl and retail theft

by The Examiner Editorial Board

Last month, New York City opened its first overdose prevention site for drug users. So far, staff members in the facility – where people addicted to drugs can get high with oversight from people trained to spot overdoses – have reversed more than two dozen incidents. In a city where over 2,000 people died of overdoses last year, the first month of this approach demonstrates its power to save lives.

New York City’s experience provides an important data point for San Francisco, which is exploring the possibility of a similar facility in the Tenderloin. Given the number of lives this might save, Mayor London Breed should move ahead as boldly as possible, challenging timid Democratic counterparts in Sacramento and Washington if necessary. If she stalls, preventable deaths will continue to pile up on her watch.

This compassionate approach is not the only tool needed to address the opioid and meth addiction emergency. On Tuesday, Breed also announced dramatic plans to flood the Tenderloin’s drug hot spots with more police in efforts to target dealers and clean up the open-air drug market just blocks from City Hall.

This action is long overdue. Walk through certain blocks in this neighborhood and you’ll witness a modern-day Hieronymus Bosch painting. People crowd the sidewalks in various states of addiction and disarray — some with needles in their arms, others crouched somewhere between standing and falling and many already collapsed into a deep dope sleep from which they may never awaken. Dealers patrol the scene, blithely navigating the carnage produced by their wares, eyes searching for the next victim. No one worries much about the police.

Tolerance, when taken too far, can become indifference or neglect. It can empower the bleak authoritarianism of addiction and exploitation, making death the most likely antidote to its misery. It can turn the best of progressive intentions into an utter lack of compassion, leadership and morality. This has clearly happened in The City.

Can Breed do better? She appears willing to try. Her ambitious new strategy aims to permanently end the Tenderloin’s drug free-for-all zone and reverse the neighborhood’s atmosphere of criminal anarchy.

“We need to change course on how we handle public safety in San Francisco,” wrote Breed in a Medium post outlining her plan. “I’m proud that this city believes in giving people second chances. Nevertheless, we also need there to be accountability when someone does break the law. We can’t be a place where anything goes on the street. San Francisco is a compassionate city, but our compassion cannot be mistaken for weakness or indifference.”

Breed put it even more bluntly at a City Hall press conference.

“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, more aggressive with the changes in our policies, and less tolerant of all the bullsh*t that has destroyed our city.”

She acknowledged that her more aggressive approach would make some people uncomfortable.

“I don’t care,” she declared.

On Medium, Breed unveiled a four-point plan. It calls for The City to launch an “Emergency Intervention Plan” in the Tenderloin, flooding the zone with SFPD officers and social services to address rampant drug dealing and addiction. To pay the overtime costs of the deployment, Breed pledged to find emergency funding.

In addition, Breed proposed amending The City’s surveillance ordinance “so law enforcement can prevent and interrupt crime in real time, something they’re effectively barred from doing now.”

The plan also includes a strategy to target street sales of stolen goods to fight back against the organized retail theft plaguing local merchants.

It’s a welcome shift in strategy and tone for beleaguered Tenderloin residents left to fend for themselves amid unchecked drug devastation and increasing violence. Police Chief Bill Scott promised a long-term effort to transform the neighborhood into a place where open drug use and flagrant crime are no longer tolerated. San Francisco County Sheriff Paul Miyamoto promised an increase in “partnerships and collaborations” to target crime, along with a compassionate approach to ensure access to services and a “commitment to helping people.”

Breed said she regularly talks to District Attorney Chesa Boudin about making sure those arrested face real consequences for their action. Boudin, facing a spirited recall election next year, surely understands the importance of cooperating with this effort. After all, the reformer DA wasted no time in filing felony charges against the suspects arrested in connection with the flash mob attack on Louis Vuitton and other Union Square stores in November, proving he’s no fool when it comes to political optics. He cannot afford to let Breed frame him as the weak link in her strategy to suppress crime.

San Francisco can’t solve the problems of addiction and crime with police action alone, but the lack of policing in places like the Tenderloin has clearly resulted in an untenable situation. If this is what “progress” looks like in 21st century California – no thanks.

The City needs a multifaceted strategy that includes increased policing as well as the resources needed to help those suffering from poverty, addiction and mental health issues. More police won’t please everyone, but it’s safe to say most voters in The City won’t mind a surge of badges in the Tenderloin.

A strong enforcement approach will also give Breed political cover to pursue more compassionate strategies – like the overdose prevention centers San Francisco desperately needs to save lives – without looking like a mere enabler of heroin, fentanyl and meth addiction.

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