SF said police could start arresting some Tenderloin drug users. Here's what happened – San Francisco Chronicle
Police officers Mitchinson (left) and Ryan Doherty talk to people in a spot frequented by drug users outside the linkage center at Civic Center Plaza.
Police Officer Ryan Doherty patrols Civic Center Plaza outside the Linkage Center.
Police Officer Ryan Doherty (center) gives a lollipop to Jerm Green, 4, (center, left) at Civic Center Plaza.
Mayor London Breed on Friday reiterated her desire to have law enforcement play a role in addressing the Tenderloin’s drug crisis after one of the city’s top officials warned that some users could be arrested in certain circumstances.
But the stated shift in strategy has not yet translated into much visible change on the ground.
Mary Ellen Carroll, who is leading Breed’s Tenderloin emergency initiative, told The Chronicle on Thursday that police would play a more active role in trying to get people who use drugs on the neighborhood’s streets connected with services. Carroll said the goal was not arrest, but that enforcement could be used as a last resort if people refused services and continued harmful behaviors, although she said there would be no “roundup.”
Over the course of several hours on Friday, The Chronicle did not see police arrest any drug users or increase their intervention in the neighborhood as crews cleaned and conducted outreach.
Interviews with San Francisco officials, police and people on the streets also did not suggest an imminent police crackdown on drug users, and city leaders said their top priority remained trying to get more people into treatment.
Still, city officials have not denied that they are willing to have police arrest users in certain circumstances, and Carroll’s Thursday comments marked an escalation in the Tenderloin initiative that the mayor launched in December.
“If you are in the Tenderloin and you are breaking the law, and unfortunately if you have a drug problem, our goal is to first provide services,” Breed told The Chronicle on Friday. “We want to get you into treatment, but we will be enforcing the law, and whatever that means on the ground will be determined by the officers who are out there. But our first approach is to try and get people help and support.”
A police officer walks past the linkage center.
The city has offered voluntary services, including housing and drug treatment, through a new linkage center at U.N. Plaza over the past month, but data shows that only a fraction of visitors were connected to resources. Carroll said city leaders are now looking to a firmer approach, hoping to see concrete results on the Tenderloin’s streets and curb the overdose crisis that has cost 1,300 lives over the past two years. Critics pushed back Friday on her announcement, saying the city was criminalizing addiction, which wouldn’t solve the root causes for people being on the streets.
“For years, everyone has been saying that we can’t arrest our way out of homelessness, and yet that always becomes the default,” said Kelley Cutler, an organizer with the Coalition on Homelessness. “What they’re doing now is nothing new. It’s the same cycle that we see over and over again.”
Cutler and other homeless advocates oppose the policing of drug use in the Tenderloin. They say the city does not have nearly enough treatment and shelter for drug users who want help, and that bolstering those and other services should be the city’s main focus.
“I’m on a daily basis talking to people who are looking for resources, and it’s just so difficult these days,” Cutler said.
Emergency management department spokesperson Francis Zamora said Friday the city is working on long-term solutions — creating shelter spots, permanent supportive housing and behavioral health treatment beds — and taking immediate action to address “what’s in front of us.”
Carroll’s announcement came almost one week after a 16-year-old girl died of a possible overdose in the city’s South of Market neighborhood, but mayor’s spokesperson Jeff Cretan said he did not think the tragedy was behind the move to have law enforcement more involved on the ground.
“What the mayor heard from the community was, when they don’t feel safe, there’s a lot of drug dealers, but there’s also people who are committing violent acts, and it could be driven by their drug use or their behavioral health challenges,” Cretan said. “Those violent acts are not OK. You have to manage those as well, sometimes with law enforcement.”
Police officers ask a man inside a tent to move his belongings at Civic Center Plaza.
San Francisco police Officer Robert Rueca told The Chronicle in an email that he was barred from sharing details on any “planned operations in the Tenderloin, but we are committed to collaborating with our City partners to create a safer Tenderloin neighborhood.”
He said the city had “the responsibility to intervene when harmful behaviors are hurting people.”
Police data from before and after the Tenderloin emergency shows arrests for drug-related crimes in the neighborhood are largely unchanged. Police logged 15 arrests for drug sales or possession with intent to sell this past week in the Tenderloin, compared with a normal average of 10 to 15 people arrested a week before Dec. 10.
Some Tenderloin community members have told The Chronicle they want more police, but specifically to deter drug dealing. Zamora said police will be involved in outreach as well as regular patrols, which include actions such as arresting dealers and seizing drugs.
For the past few weeks, police officers have joined emergency management staff, Public Works cleaners, homeless outreach workers and paramedics for a morning operation to clean and clear specific blocks identified as problematic by community members. On Friday, it was the 300 block of Hyde Street, where crews have visited before.
Just after 10 a.m., Destin Tianero, emergency medical services captain in the Fire Department and Tenderloin incident commander, called a city staffer to close down the block as an EMS van, Public Works truck and cop car pulled up along the curb. Tianero started walking down the block and talking to people sitting on the concrete, telling them they were about to clean the sidewalks. He carried pieces of paper with information about available shelters to hand out.
People were sitting on camping chairs, smoking drugs or hovering over blankets covered with purses and other wares for sale. Homeless outreach workers dressed in neon green wove through the two dozen or so people clustered along the sidewalk, offering to connect them to shelter or treatment. Some sought help — Jessica DiDia, who was featured last year in a Chronicle story, said she got an appointment to sign up for cash assistance, necessary since she’s trying to get permanent supportive housing. Others simply gathered their belongings and shuffled away.
A police officer stood by a patrol car in the middle of the street, observing but not involved in outreach.
As Public Works employees turned on power washers on the emptied sidewalk, Darryl Peoples ambled over to the other side of Hyde Street. Every morning, he said he wakes up in his single room occupancy hotel on Sutter Street and then heads to this block before the sun rises to hang out. Over the past few weeks, he’s seen the “systematic cleansing” of the block, after which people quickly return.
The 46-year-old Hunters Point native is a heroin user but said he doesn’t use in the open as others on the block do.
Peoples said more police intervention wouldn’t make a difference to him — he would just move to another block. He scoffed at the idea of the possible threat of arrest.
“What are you going to do — flood the justice system with a bunch of drug users?” he said. “That don’t work. They tried that.”
He suggested the city open up a designated area for drug use — which officials are considering — and if people use outside of those facilities, they should be forced to go inside. He also said the city should create more career opportunities to get people off the streets. He wants to work with a nonprofit, but no leads have panned out yet.
Rene Colorado, executive director of the Tenderloin Merchants and Property Owners Association, stopped by the operation Friday, taking photos of the cleaned block to post on social media.
He said law enforcement was sometimes a necessary step. With overdoses killing nearly two people a day in San Francisco, the crisis demanded an “all hands on deck approach” including medics, social workers, homeless outreach workers and police.
Colorado, who lives in the Tenderloin, was a formerly undocumented immigrant from Mexico, homeless in San Francisco and spent nearly a year in jail in South Dakota for possession of marijuana.
“Just because you’re homeless or doing drugs doesn’t mean you get to do whatever you want,” he said. “You shouldn’t just blindly advocate for someone to break the law.”
Colorado said he believed the daily operations were effective, but said the city should arrest and prosecute more drug dealers to curb crime and deploy more community ambassadors. His organization employs ambassadors who offer services to people on the streets and whose presence keeps people from returning to deal or do drugs on a certain block.
“Unless drug dealing is addressed, all of this is unfortunately abandoned,” he said, sweeping his arm along the power-washed block.
Less than an hour after the operation moved on to the next block, some of the same people filled the sidewalk, smoking drugs and selling goods. A cluster of men with backpacks on the corner, who community members said were drug dealers, reappeared when police went around the corner. They later scattered once again when a cop car drove by.
One police officer watching the operation on the next block, whom The Chronicle isn’t naming in accordance with its anonymous source policy, said despite Carroll’s announcement about more police involvement, his role hadn’t changed. Because of staffing shortages, Tenderloin enforcement is like “whack-a-mole.”
“You need real enforcement for dealers, and not the revolving door, and real treatment for users,” said the officer, who isn’t authorized to speak to the press. “There’s so many people that need help with so few resources, it bottlenecks.”
He said he persuaded a woman on the streets in November to seek treatment, but she couldn’t get in a spot until January. He saw her in the same location in February — she’d never made it to that treatment bed.
“I want users to get help,” he said. “I don’t want to send you to jail. That will solve nothing.”
J.D. Morris and Mallory Moench are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com Twitter: @thejdmorris @mallorymoench
J.D. Morris covers energy and climate change, focusing on such areas as the electric grid, renewables, carbon emissions and disasters, particularly wildfires and earthquakes.
Before joining The Chronicle, he was the Sonoma County government reporter for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, where he was among the journalists awarded a Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of the 2017 North Bay wildfires.
He was previously the casino industry reporter for the Las Vegas Sun. Raised in Monterey County and Bakersfield, he has a bachelor’s degree in rhetoric from UC Berkeley.
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.