SF drug arrests see steep plunge, while violent crime mostly steady

A huge drop in narcotics arrests citywide does not seem to have affected the overall rate of violent crime in The City, which has some observers calling into question traditional police philosophy linking drug activity and violence.

Police statistics show a 25 percent drop in drug arrests this year over last, and a 6 percent decrease in overall violent crime. Drug arrests in 2010 were 39 percent off 2009 totals, while violent crime dropped 3 percent that year.

While the numbers remain open to interpretation, Sheriff Michael Hennessey said he believes police and prosecutors may have changed their drug enforcement priorities for the better.

Hennessey noticed a shift in 2010 after the Police Department’s drug lab scandal led to hundreds of drug cases being dropped. The jail population decreased dramatically, possibly due in part to fewer arrests and prosecutions for minor drug crimes, he said.

“This has been somewhat of a de facto decriminalization of drugs — in other words, they’re not being prosecuted,” Hennessey said. “And it does not appear that violent crime in San Francisco has risen, so it may say something about the necessity for the war on drugs.”

George Gascón said that as police chief he began focusing more on midlevel drug dealers and drug offenses often associated with violent crimes, and is continuing that as district attorney now that The City is receiving more convicts and parolees under the state’s realignment plan. Some minor drug possession cases are being sent to community and neighborhood courts.

Yet police say their approach on the street hasn’t changed significantly.

“We are doing some more selected and directed enforcement,” police Sgt. Mike Andraychak said. He said lower-level buy-bust and other undercover operations, especially near schools, are continuing.

But Andraychak also acknowledged that the department now has more limited grant funding for certain drug enforcement operations. And budget cuts have resulted in fewer officers on the streets and reduced overtime.

“We’re doing more with less,” said Capt. Joe Garrity, whose Tenderloin district had the most drug arrests both this year and last. Drug dealers often come to the Tenderloin from other parts of The City and beyond to ply their trade, in particular crack cocaine and heroin sales.

Arrested dealers are often also slapped with neighborhood stay-away orders, and fewer arrests may mean they’re going elsewhere, Garrity said.

“We are still emphasizing drug enforcement, because virtually every crime goes back to dope,” said Capt. Greg Corrales of the Mission district, another hotbed of drug activity.

Corrales said his officers are focusing on sales of crack cocaine and methamphetamine, and to a lesser extent, heroin.

“If we encounter marijuana dealers, we will arrest them, although that is not a major priority,” Corrales said.

Craig Reinarman, a UC Santa Cruz professor of sociology and legal studies who has been critical of punitive drug enforcement, said the majority of drug arrests by police have historically been for petty offenses, mostly marijuana.

“The relationship between those arrests and violent crimes was always more tenuous than police like to let on,” he said.

Rather than punishing those with drug problems, Reinarman and others have pushed for a greater emphasis on drug treatment and rehabilitation.

“We could do a lot better than the massive prison industrial complex now in place, which is driven by the drug war,” he said.

Police priorities

S.F. drug arrests, citywide
2009: 9,505
2010: 5,834
2011: 3,751*

*Through Oct. 15; 5,005 on same date in 2010

Citywide violent crimes

Includes homicide, rape, robbery and aggravated assault

2009: 7,391
2010: 7,139
2011: 5,366*

*Through Oct. 15; 5,715 at the same time in 2010


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