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With a Sig Sauer .45 semi-automatic handgun holstered at his hip, and a San Francisco Police Department star chained around his neck, Carl Tennenbaum rolled through the streets of the Tenderloin undercover, day-in-day-out, for three years. It was the 1980s, when San Francisco still had a concrete slab of a freeway blocking the view of the Ferry Building from Market Street, and underneath its shadow the crack-cocaine epidemic gripped the City-by-the-Bay as tightly as it did any American metropolis.
Tennenbaum, a San Francisco native and graduate of Lincoln High School, was a professional narc, a foot-soldier in the nation’s war on drugs, and the Tenderloin was his theater. He bought cocaine from dealers on the corner of Eddy and Taylor Streets, only to shove them to a wall as soon as the cash hit their hands. Sitting in the shade of the Henry Hotel, which even then was dilapidated, he found people shaking in tremors, hunched over crack pipes, and cuffed them.
Forty years ago, Tennenbaum arrested hundreds of people, far more than he could recall. Flash forward to 2022, and city leaders want the same from officers now.
In modern-day San Francisco, a growing swell of voices are supporting District Attorney Brooke Jenkins as she calls on San Francisco to bring what they call law-and-order to the Tenderloin. The scourge today is fentanyl, which has killed more San Franciscans than COVID, by a long shot.
Fans of Jenkins’ recent policy changes — from homicide charges for drug dealers to steeper sentences against drug users — would probably praise Tennenbaum for his similar efforts against cocaine dealers and users.
Tennenbaum, however, regrets every second.
He’s far from alone. Some sectors of the city are now pushing back against renewed support for the war on drugs, which they see as a failed policy.
Now 65, the retired sergeant believes that by jailing drug users and dealers, he broke up families, prevented people from kicking their addictions, and ultimately did not rid the streets of San Francisco from drugs. Perhaps even worse, today, he sees the city lurching back toward the unsuccessful policies of the past.
“I saw directly the impact I was having on families and on the community and society. And everything that I was doing was way worse than whatever the impact of the use of drugs was,” he told KQED.
Today, “it’s more of the same.”
San Francisco Public Defender Mano Raju echoed those thoughts in a press conference this week.
“DA Jenkins recently announced policies (that) are just more of the same regressive approaches,” he said. “To be clear, as the war on drugs has clearly demonstrated, criminalizing the supply (does) nothing to reduce the demand.”
A bevy of experts joined Raju, including drug policy professionals, health care professionals, Tenderloin nonprofit leaders and a medical professor, joined the public defender to offer alternatives to incarceration to curb open drug use.
Known and proven methods of reducing harm need to be funded, they said: from behavioral health programs in San Francisco jails to more housing to help addicts have a secure place from which to combat their addictions. Safe injection sites are also needed, they said, so that trained professionals can keep drug users alive long enough for them to find a path to normalcy. Mayor London Breed has tried to get state support to open such a site, and Gov. Gavin Newsom recently vetoed a bill that would have done so.
Kara Simon Casey, from the nonprofit health care group Code Tenderloin, asserted that her organization offers case management for drug users, job placement and a safe place to recover. But they need more funding to step up what they do.
“That’s where the funding needs to go from what I can see in the city, because I work daily with the population that are experiencing these traumas,” Simon Casey said, adding that the war on drugs just puts people in prisons where they continue their addictions.
When DA Jenkins argues for a return to harsher penalties, she claims a leftward swing by former District Attorney Chesa Boudin to divert drug dealers and offenders to diversion programs has worsened drug dealing in the city.
But Leo Beletsky, an associate professor at UC San Diego’s School of Medicine, said it is inaccurate to say San Francisco ever took its foot off the gas on enforcing anti-drug laws, especially in the Tenderloin.
“The federal initiative for the Tenderloin, which involves 15 local and federal and state law enforcement agencies, has been in place since 2019,” he said. “This is a very intensive drug-law enforcement initiative in the Tenderloin and surrounding community and surrounding areas in San Francisco. And so the idea that somehow the former DA’s policies caused a complete stop to drug-law enforcement in San Francisco is just not true.”
Some at the presser openly critiqued Jenkins’ recently announced effort to charge drug dealers with homicides in the case of drug overdoses. Norma Palacios, a policy coordinator with the Drug Policy Alliance, said her organization issued a report in 2018 that looked at that particular charging policy, and found it lacking.
“What the findings demonstrate is that these laws are counterproductive to reducing drug use and drug availability,” she said, adding that it even does harm because “it minimizes the chance that a person would call 911 in case someone is experiencing overdose.”
Tennenbaum, the retired SFPD sergeant, was not part of Raju’s press conference, but he’s now a speaker with the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, which advocates for the decriminalization of drug use.
The organization has no stake or claim on any District Attorney candidate, but Tennenbaum was clear that Jenkins’ recent law-and-order effort has its origins in another political era.
On June 17, 1971, then-President Richard Nixon made a speech from the White House that would begin a decades-long criminalization of impoverished communities of color, an effort known colloquially as the war on drugs.
“America’s public enemy number one in the United States is drug abuse. In order to fight and defeat this enemy it is necessary to wage a new all-out offensive,” Nixon told the nation, in a now-infamous address.
Following the passage of stiffer penalties for crack cocaine, the Black incarceration rate in America exploded from about 600 per 100,000 people in 1970 to 1,808 in 2000, according to an Associated Press review of federal and state incarceration data.
In the same timespan, the rate for the Latino population grew from 208 per 100,000 people to 615, while the white incarceration rate grew from 103 per 100,000 people to 242.
Tennenbaum heard those same policies echoed at an early October press conference held by Mayor London Breed, San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott, District Attorney Brooke Jenkins, and Supervisor Matt Dorsey.
Standing at a podium earlier this month, Jenkins gave voice to the need for treatment for drug users. But her method for compelling them into such treatment involves steeper consequences for refusing it, a method her critics say won’t work.
Jenkins rebuked those critics outright. But while she said her tough-on-crime policies aren’t linked to Nixon’s drug war, in the next breath, she seemed to embrace the idea.
“People want to talk about, well, ‘The war on drugs, this. The war on drugs, that,’” Jenkins said. But, “It is a war on fentanyl. It is.”
She added, “when I’m having to give a lesson to my 6-year-old about not eating something that looks like candy, because it can kill her, this is absolutely a war, on the most lethal drug our street has ever seen.”
That particular candy issue aside — it’s a Fox News talking point that has been critiqued as overblown — Tennenbaum sees the return to war-on-drug policies as potentially deadly. He’s seen it himself.
When he was a narcotics cop, he once arrested a young Black woman who was selling drugs on 16th and Capp streets, in the Mission. Whether it was because they were both city natives — she attended Mission High School, and grew up in the Valencia Gardens housing project — or simply because she was kind, they hit it off. She became a confidential informant for Tennenbaum, a useful ally in the war on drugs.
“She would give me little bits of information, nothing that led to anything big. And we just were back and forth. And I really have to be honest, I really, just really liked her. She was a very nice person,” he said.
But after a month or so, he didn’t hear from her. It was then that one of Tennenbaum’s superiors told him she was shot and killed. Her body was recovered by Candlestick Park, the now-bygone baseball stadium.
He felt responsible. Her death came about because of his willingness to partake in a drug war, one he said may cause more death, and lead to more drug use, should city leaders continue it.
“And yeah,” he said, “it stuck with me.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.