San Francisco can quickly end Tenderloin drug dealing

The essential strategy the SFPD ignores is hot spot policing

By Randy Shaw

Special to The Examiner

San Francisco has allowed the Tenderloin neighborhood to be overwhelmed by drug dealers. All while ignoring proven methods to eliminate street dealing.

The essential strategy the San Francisco Police Department ignores is hot spot policing. Adding officers to hot spots of crime and public drug activity is how New York City experienced an 81% drop in crime from 1990-2009. (No, it was not due to the racist practice of “stop and frisk.”) Most of this crime occurred in low-income communities of color like San Francisco’s Tenderloin.

How the strategy works

The SFPD has targeted no additional police to these hot spots. Two weeks ago it finally closed down the worst hot spot at Hyde and Turk but provided no officers to follow those dealers when they moved nearby.

New York City disproved the popular belief that targeting hot spots just shifts crime to nearby blocks; its sharp, citywide crime drop showed otherwise. But closing only one hot spot, as San Francisco has done, does what critics of arresting dealers predict — it just moves the dealers a few blocks away.

I asked Police Chief William Scott to implement hot spot policing years before the Tenderloin drug crisis got dramatically worse. He said the SFPD lacked the resources. We didn’t hear that excuse from the chief or Mayor London Breed when 80 officers were recently dispatched to Union Square.

Past Tenderloin success

When hot spot policing has been used in the Tenderloin — in 2009 under Chief George Gascon and when Mayor Ed Lee ordered Chief Greg Suhr to provide 24-hour police coverage for lower Turk — I saw it was an immediate success.

After Gascon flooded the area with cops, the Tenderloin was safer than at any time in the preceding three decades. Unfortunately, the sheriff and public defender demanded Gascon remove the extra cops. The Tenderloin then returned to its role as a drug containment zone.

Major drug activity never returned to lower Turk after Lee’s order. A block whose violence was eight times that of any other Tenderloin block was transformed.

Resources are false issue

The additional resources for hot spot policing are temporary. In lower Turk, for example, once the dealers were gone they did not return when the police left. That was also the pattern in New York City.

The SFPD claims it lacks enough officers to stop Tenderloin drug dealing. But it finds officers to stop dealers in affluent neighborhoods. Officers are always found for special events or “crackdowns” in other areas; blaming a lack of resources is a cop out.

What about the DA?

Hot spot policing is premised on dealers seeking to avoid arrest. Officers on dealers’ business corners force them to go elsewhere. So while District Attorney Chesa Boudin has sent bad messages about arresting dealers, this does not prevent the hot spot strategy. The police have long blamed DA inaction for The City keeping the Tenderloin a drug containment zone.

A mayor who wanted to end most open drug dealing in the Tenderloin could do so in a month. Breed has expressed frustration at the lack of police response but she ultimately decides SFPD priorities; when she wanted 80 officers for Union Square, they were there.

The strategy for success is there. Whether San Francisco finally uses it to ensure basic public safety to a Tenderloin community that includes over 3,000 kids is a question of political will.

Randy Shaw is director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic. He has worked in the Tenderloin since 1980, and is author of “The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco.”