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Effectiveness of police crackdown on San Francisco Tenderloin crime remains to be seen

San Francisco boosts police presence in troubled Tenderloin District
San Francisco boosts police presence in troubled Tenderloin District 05:08

SAN FRANCISCO -- As San Francisco tries to take control of the years-long crisis in the Tenderloin District, the role of police has been hotly-debated. Mayor London Breed has promised more order in the streets and asked for more police funding to help accomplish it.

"We as a city we need to take a harder stance on going after the conditions of what's happening in this particular neighborhood where we have a large number of families and children and immigrants and people who are businesses who are just trying to make a living and survive in San Francisco," Breed told KPIX. "We can do better than this and we're going to continue to try."

That now includes a stepped-up fight against the neighborhood's sprawling open-air drug market.

"Finally, the police, I guess she just gave them the OK, because all of a sudden, the last month, they've been throwing a lot of arrests," said Tenderloin resident Kirk Gordon. "I've seen them blocking off s--t and running these dope dealers to different corners."

It's not Gordon's imagination.

"Extra baggies," said a San Francisco Police officer, combing through a bag seized during an arrest for alleged drug dealing. "More fentanyl."


It is a typical bust made by a six-member undercover team, launched in late November. And just days later, more arrests at the very same corner. There are new rules. A uniformed officer must be on hand, but it's not slowing them down. At the start of April, the department's Tenderloin Station had made 217 arrests, putting it on pace to pass last year's total by more than 50%.

"We have recovered triple the amount of drugs year-to-date as opposed to last year," said Captain Sergio Chin of Tenderloin Station.

"We have charged almost double the amount of cases in the period since I took over compared with the previous year," explained San Francisco District Attorney Brooke Jenkins.

Jenkins began her tenure by coming to this neighborhood and promising action against drug dealing. While the busts are really old-fashioned police work, they're hitting challenges. A complaint was filed against one officer alleging that Latinos are being unfairly targeted. Officers say they're simply targeting fentanyl and problematic corners. 

As for prosecutors, their drug arrest cases are just now reaching courtrooms, and the first two ended with hung juries.

"The defense that was offered in both of those cases is that the defendant had been trafficked, and that's why they were selling narcotics," Jenkins said. "This is a new issue. When I was handling drug-dealing cases five years ago, there was no allegation that anyone was being trafficked, so it's something that we are having to adapt to rapidly."

Back on the street, it's not hard to find those who say the stepped-up presence alone - at least on their corner - is long overdue.

"We've tried to call the police many times before," said Jessica, a travel agency owner. "Sometimes they come, sometimes not. Right now, it's really better, with the police on the streets right now. I prefer to have the police on the streets. That's better."

But much like the complaints that Urban Alchemy's unarmed public safety ambassadors only patrol some of the neighborhood, the police can't be everywhere at once.

"They've moved them all the way up to Post Street," observed Tony Kushmaul. "So they move them block to block, or they move them around the block."

"Even though the sellers may move around and others engage in criminal activity," promised Assistant Police Chief David Lazar, "we're going to stay on top of them and on top of what they're doing regardless of where they go."

"We're not gonna have any more luck arresting our way out of that crisis by arresting street-level dealers than any prior administration of that or that this country has had," said District 5 Supervisor Dean Preston. "If you haven't addressed the underlying causes and reasons that folks are out there and dealing, if you have an investor in the community you're just moving people around."

So the police are making more arrests, taking on a wave of drug dealers, as residents watch and wait to see what it might accomplish.

"The police, they need to make more walking routes, you know," Gordon said of what he'd like to see from SFPD. "Walking around. At least scare these guys."

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