A San Francisco police officer breaks up a group of people gathering on Turk Street in the Tenderloin neighborhood in San Francisco in June 2021. As drug-related arrests in the area soar, some residents complain that the city and law enforcement aren’t doing enough to keep families and business owners safe.
Mayor London Breed addresses the media during a news conference on plans to address crime in the Tenderloin neighborhood, at City Hall in San Francisco, Calif. on Tues. Dec. 14, 2021.
Mayor London Breed wants to significantly boost the police presence in the Tenderloin over the next few months as part of a public safety blitz, which includes a crackdown on those who are selling drugs — and those who are using them — in the long-troubled neighborhood.
On Tuesday, Breed called for increased funding for police overtime to help pay for the move, which includes tackling the resale of stolen goods. She told residents last week that she believes policing is an “important tool” to address some of the neighborhood’s woes, which include widespread drug dealing, a surge in fatal overdoses and a spike in gun violence.
“It’s time that the reign of criminals who are destroying our city … come(s) to an end,” Breed said at a news conference in City Hall on Tuesday, flanked by department heads and Supervisors Catherine Stefani and Ahsha Safaí. “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 bulls — that destroyed our city.”
The Department of Emergency Management will lead the two- to three-month intervention that officials hope will result in more sustainable changes. Increased spending for police overtime is just one component of the plan, which will also focus on basic infrastructure needs like more cleaning, public toilets and streetlights.
But the push for more officers will likely draw the most attention, landing amid a national reckoning over the role of police in vulnerable communities. It also marks a shift in messaging from the Breed administration, which for the past year has focused on creating programs that remove law enforcement from interactions with those struggling with homelessness, mental health issues and drug use.
Members of the San Francisco Police Department stand on the corner of Turk and Hyde street during a protest against drug dealers in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco on May 26, 2021.
Breed’s public safety plan comes as the Tenderloin continues to grab national headlines and the mayor feels heat to get the city’s spiraling homelessness and overdoses crisis under control. It also lands a day after the mayor announced a plan to rein in the school board. Both initiatives could score her political points, but have also sparked criticism.
The mayor’s office said overtime pay will also be used for other priorities, such as deterring retail theft in Union Square. Breed also introduced legislation Tuesday, co-sponsored by Safaí, to tackle reselling of stolen goods on the streets by prohibiting street vending in existing “problematic” areas such as UN Plaza and requiring vendors to post approved permits.
Breed also wants to change city law to allow police officers to access security camera footage during emergency situations, such as the Union Square thefts.
The bulk of the Tenderloin plan focuses on drug dealing and use. Mary Ellen Carroll, executive director of the Department of Emergency Management, who’s directing the neighborhood response, said the current state of the Tenderloin is “unacceptable.” While she said the police will mainly focus on those selling drugs, “sometimes we need help and support from law enforcement in dealing with the folks in the environment that drug addiction creates.”
Breed said the effort will involve social workers, outreach workers, police, and community groups working together to offer wraparound services and connection to a new temporary linkage site where people can start treatment. She and police Chief Bill Scott stressed the city would continue to offer services but would not allow people to use drugs in public.
“We are not going to just walk by and let someone use in broad daylight on the streets and not give them a choice between going to a location we have identified (for) them or going to jail,” Breed said.
Breed added that “my hope is that the district attorney, who we’re definitely trying to work with, will hold the people we arrest accountable.”
To pay for the increased law enforcement, the mayor plans to introduce a supplemental budget proposal in January to increase police overtime spending in the current fiscal year. It’s unclear how much extra funding will be needed, and the Board of Supervisors must approve the proposal.
The debate over police funding was a flash point in this year’s budget negotiations, with advocates calling to instead funnel those resources into social services that they said address the root causes of crime. Breed’s proposal will likely reignite the debate around law enforcement funding.
The Police Department is currently more than 400 officers short, according to a Dec. 1 police commission meeting. The supervisors and mayor agreed in June to hire 135 more officers over the next two years, instead of the 200 requested by the police chief. The budget increased police overtime by $6 million this year, less than the $7 million the mayor’s office wanted.
Supervisors also boosted Breed’s investment in unarmed community ambassadors and new Street Crisis Response Teams, which send behavioral health professionals to 911 calls for mental health crises.
Laura Thomas, the director of harm reduction policy at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, said she was “disappointed and discouraged” by what she saw as a shift in approach from the mayor when it comes to policing.
“We’ve just gone through a national, long overdue reckoning of police, and we’ve been putting up these Street Crisis Response Teams, which all made sense to me and are evidenced-based approaches,” she said. More policing “is certainly not going to be improving the quality of life for Black, Indigenous, people of color who have experienced violence at the hands of police.”
Supervisor Matt Haney said he met with Breed a few weeks ago about a broader Tenderloin plan but said Tuesday the budget supplemental request “is new to me.” He said he would talk with officials about “what the goals and purpose of this operation will be.”
During Friday’s community meeting, residents shared with Breed their stress, fear and frustration. Some complained that police didn’t respond to reports of crime.
Gloria Lemus, the emergency relief program coordinator for Catholic Charities and La Voz Latina, said more foot patrols would make her feel much safer.
“We need to have more police and security on the streets, to provide more for the clients who come to us, to have a little bit more under control,” Lemus said.
Randy Shaw, executive director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, said the community has previously asked for more foot patrols, not to conduct mass arrests. He said police visibility deters brazen open-air drug dealing.
Other community members said Breed’s plan will do little to make a sustainable change and would instead like to see more long-term housing and services for those struggling with addiction and homelessness.
“Really? More police? I can’t believe that’s what her solution is,” said Tracey Mixon, a Tenderloin resident who works with the Coalition on Homelessness. “All you’re going to do is just frighten people down here.”
This is just the latest plan for the Tenderloin that Breed has unveiled after UC Hastings and a group of local businesses sued the city in May 2020 over street conditions.
Still, many residents say the neighborhood feels unsafe. Even Breed acknowledged that the “significant resources” have not made a difference.
“We probably spend more money specifically on the Tenderloin community than any other community in the city. Millions of dollars down the drain that are supposed to make a difference for your lives,” she said at the community meeting.
Amid police staffing shortages, people in the Tenderloin criticized the immediate mobilization of police in response to high-profile mass retail thefts in Union Square. By contrast, Breed’s plan for the Tenderloin is just getting under way.
Christy Shirilla, director of community organizing for the community benefit district, said she hopes to see more foot patrols who get to know the Tenderloin community. While more police is not the ideal solution, she said it is likely the best option for now.
“With such a quick turnaround time needed, at this point, I’ll take anything we can get,” she said.
Trisha Thadani and Mallory Moench are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email: tthadani@sfchronicle.com mallory.moench@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @TrishaThadani @mallorymoench
Trisha Thadani is a City Hall reporter for The San Francisco Chronicle. She previously covered work-based immigration and local startups for the paper’s business section.
Thadani graduated from Boston University with a degree in journalism. Before joining The Chronicle, she held internships at The Boston Globe, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, and was a Statehouse correspondent for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.
Mallory Moench is a San Francisco City Hall reporter. She joined The San Francisco Chronicle in 2019 to report on business and has also written about wildfires, transportation and the coronavirus pandemic.
She previously covered immigration and local news for the Albany Times Union and the Alabama state legislature for the Associated Press. Before that, she freelanced with a focus on the Yemeni diaspora while studying at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.