After a four hour hearing Thursday at City Hall about the open air drug dealing that has plagued the Tenderloin for decades, Supervisor Matt Haney said it was clear San Francisco lacked a coordinated plan to address the criminal activity.
To that end, he told the San Francisco Examiner that he will heed the call from residents of the neighborhood and create a task force to examine the issue and come up with recommendations.
The task force was also supported by department heads who testified, including Police Chief Bill Scott.
“It was clear that we need a comprehensive citywide strategy and we don’t have one right now,” Haney told the Examiner. “A lot of departments don’t have a really targeted approach around this challenge and they should have one.”
Haney said he will work to have an inaugural task force meeting by this summer.
In the meantime, he wants to see short term solutions, like increasing the number of police officers who patrol the Tenderloin on foot beyond the six there now, conducting more outreach to those involved in drug selling to help them find alternatives, such as job training programs, and coordinating efforts on specific city blocks to improve conditions, such as through better lighting.
Haney, who was elected as District 6 supervisor in November, said he is constantly asked by residents what The City is doing about drug dealing.
“They want to see a change. Everyone understands it’s not super simple,” Haney said. “God bless the community in the Tenderloin and the SoMa for wanting to see a change and wanting to be a part of it. That’s what makes me hopeful.”
Disrupting the market
Several departments testified during the hourslong Board of Supervisor Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee hearing about how they deal with drug dealers.
Some were critical of the Police Department’s enforcement of drug laws, which involves tactics like buy-busts conducted by their 19-strong Narcotics Unit. But the Police Department defended these efforts during the hearing.
“One of the things that we have to do is disrupt the market and make sure that people don’t come to the streets of our city and just feel that they can comfortably sell drugs without some type of disruption,” Scott said.
Hadi Ali Razzaq, an attorney with the Public Defender’s Office, said the low-level drug busts are ineffective and a waste of resources that disproportionately impact people of color and those who may be homeless or addicted to drugs themselves.
He said that the Public Defender’s Office sees many cases where the evidence is a photo of “one rock or two rocks” of crack cocaine.
“[Police officers] are targeting small street level nickel and dime dealers who are quickly replaced by others after their arrest, rather than focusing on the source of the drugs, the kingpins who are actually bringing the drugs to San Francisco and making profits,” he said.
Ali Razzaq called for a shift in thinking and a focus on supportive housing, treatment programs and jobs.
Scott defended the department’s strategies, including a recent increase of officers in UN Plaza, but he also supported the creation of a larger plan with input from residents and other departments.
“We can take every drug dealer off the streets today, but if we don’t have an infrastructure to keep the area from repopulating with new drug dealers it is going to be just a vicious circle,” Scott said.
Tenderloin Station Capt. Carl Fabbri said that “it kind of goes without saying that we are using a lot of resources on the same people over and over again.”
“Based on the data that I have, 111 people were arrested in the Tenderloin more than once for drug dealing in 2018,” he said. “And those 111 people accounted for 248 arrests.”
The District Attorney’s Office charges many of those arrested for drug offenses, according to a budget analyst’s report released Thursday.
Of the 747 drug sale arrests presented to the District Attorney’s Office last fiscal year, 601, or 80.5 percent, resulted in charges filed.
“Of the 601 filings, 276 (45.9 percent) are still pending,” the report said. “Of the remainder, 173 resulted in convictions, 68 were dismissed, 55 resulted in “another action” (most involving a plea bargain that involved pleading guilty on other charges), 28 resulted in successful diversion, and one defendant is deceased.”
District Attorney George Gascón’s chief of staff Cristine Soto DeBerry acknowledged during the hearing that diversion programs to reduce repeat offenders “meets with limited success.”
But for the cases where they are successful it is “important to make those efforts.”
Haney said after the hearing that “we had a collective agreement around the limits of law enforcement and the requirements for us to do other things.”
“There were some good ideas that came out of it, more targeted programming and diversion for specific populations, for example people who are undocumented,” he said, adding that “we don’t really effective diversion for anyone who is engaged in drug sales, including people who are undocumented.”
San Francisco arrested and cited 883 people for selling drugs like crack cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine last fiscal year, with more than half by officers working for the Tenderloin Police District Station, according to the report.
While Tenderloin Police District Station made 496 drug sale arrests or citations last fiscal year, or 56 percent, Southern Police District Station made the second most arrests for drug sales with 103, or 12 percent for a combined 499, or 68 percent.
Both stations cover most of SoMa and Mission Bay, Tenderloin, Mid‐Market, and South of Market neighborhoods.
Arrests come at a price
The drug enforcement hasn’t come cheap, however.
“We estimate that $12,519,713 was spent by the City for suppression and related criminal justice costs of open air drug dealing in the Tenderloin, SoMa, and Mid‐Market areas in FY 2017‐18,” the report said.
The estimate includes $7.7 million for the Police Department’s narcotics unit and operations, $735,121 for “community ambassadors” and costs associated with the defense and prosecution.
That breaks down to about $20,901 per drug arrest. The estimate is “conservative,” since it doesn’t include expenses like administration, jail stays and training.
The report also identified racial disparities.
“The majority (51 percent) of individuals booked or cited for drug sales in FY 2017‐18 were Hispanic or Latino even though Latinos only make up 15 percent of the City’s population,” the report said. “Black arrestees were also overrepresented in drug sale arrests compared to the share of the City population (27 percent of arrestees vs. 5 percent of the population).”
The Police Department, in the report, said that “a direct comparison to City demographics may be misleading” since not all arrestees are residents in San Francisco.
The report found that “The City’s efforts to address open‐air drug dealing in the Tenderloin, SoMa, and Mid‐Market areas is dispersed across various City departments and there is no coordinated strategic plan or tracking and reporting of associated costs across these departments”
The findings seem to support Haney’s opening remarks at the hearing.
“We spend tens of millions of dollars, mostly on criminalization of low level offenders, and have not had a lot to show for it,” Haney said.