SAN FRANCISCO -- San Francisco's top prosecutor on Monday pushed back on the mayor's call for increased policing to battle rampant drug dealing in one of the city's most vulnerable neighborhoods, urging her instead to put more money into housing and treatment that get at the root causes of crime.
The politically embattled District Attorney Chesa Boudin was joined by public defender Mano Raju and addiction specialists at a news conference announced after Mayor London Breed last week declared a state of emergency in the long-troubled Tenderloin. Open drug dealing and shootings in the neighborhood have made children and seniors afraid to go outside.
The news conference comes as Boudin, whose 2019 election was not supported by Breed, faces a recall election in June put on the ballot by detractors who say he is soft on criminals. Boudin's office has countered the criticism with examples of successful crackdowns on retail theft and other criminal operations. But his remarks Monday made clear his position on going after people who have substance use problems or mental health issues.
“If arrests and prosecutions alone could solve the drug crisis in this country or in this city, it would have been solved long ago,” he said. “We've invested over a trillion dollars in fighting the so-called war on drugs, and where has it gotten us?”
Boudin said the “raw human suffering” he sees in the neighborhood outrages him. But using outdated methods won’t make people any safer, and the city has other options, said Boudin, who worked in the public defender's office before becoming DA.
A spokesperson for the mayor said Monday the administration has made historic investments in housing and treatment and is committed to opening a safe drug consumption site as well as a drug sobering center, ideas also supported by Monday's speakers. As part of her emergency response plan, Breed is working to open a temporary site in the Tenderloin to connect people to services, said Jeff Cretan.
“The reality is that our outreach teams are out there every day, and while many people accept services to get themselves indoors and to get the help they need, others don’t,” he said, adding that the mayor will continue to invest in these programs, “but people will not be allowed to reject these services and continue to break the law.”
Like many other overwhelmingly Democratic cities, San Francisco is struggling to address crime amid police reforms prompted by the 2020 murder of George Floyd. While overall reports of crime are down from San Francisco’s pre-pandemic levels, viral video footage of brazen shoplifters and tales of home burglaries have forced an uncomfortable spotlight on a city that takes pride in its vaunted compassion and tolerance.
The Oakland City Council, a longtime leader in the Black Lives Matter movement to cut police funding, backtracked earlier this month and voted to hire 60 new officers and add two new police academies amid a surge in homicides and gun violence.
San Francisco spends millions of dollars to address homelessness and drug addiction, but the efforts have not resulted in visible change. City leaders say the high cost of housing and the abundance of cheap synthetic drugs are also ravaging other major cities.
Some residents say San Francisco has lost its shine as public officials fail to deter repeat offenders, provide housing to the homeless or keep streets clean. They're also dismayed that the school district, which is not controlled by the mayor, stuck to remote learning for most of last year while neighboring districts and even private schools in San Francisco welcomed students back into classrooms. Several school board members also face recall elections.
People living and working in the Tenderloin, one of the city's poorest neighborhoods, have pleaded with the mayor's office for increased patrols, although not everyone agrees policing is the solution.
In response, Breed said last week they need to be “less tolerant of all the bulls—- that has destroyed our city" and announced initiatives to make it harder to sell stolen goods and allow police real-time access to surveillance video.
She said the city would no longer tolerate open drug use or dealing and people will have to accept treatment or go to jail. Critics say there are not enough treatment beds or housing.
Del Seymour, founder of workforce development group Code Tenderloin, said at Monday's news conference that he loves and respects the mayor, but flooding the neighborhood with more police who don't know how to deal with people struggling with addiction and mental health issues and homelessness isn't the answer.
“We deserve a whole bunch better than that,” he said. “The funding that you're going to spend on this can be well spent on drug counseling, treatment on demand.”
Other speakers Monday included representatives of HealthRIGHT 360, which provides mental health and substance use treatment; SF AIDS Foundation; and Shamann Walton, who is president and the sole Black member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.