Who’s to Blame for SF’s Open Drug Dealing?

by on September 4, 2018

SF Fails Equity Test on Public Safety

Despite all the media coverage about open drug dealing in such areas as UN Plaza, Mid-Market, the western Tenderloin and the Mission’s 16th Street corridor, no person nor agency has been held accountable for allowing this problem to continue. Nor has a single supervisor called for a public hearing to demand answers from the San Francisco Police Department as to their inability to make a dent in the crisis.

Not one hearing! Such civic inaction in “progressive” San Francisco could only mean one thing: the crisis of open drug dealing primarily impacts the poor and working-class.

Recall the furor earlier this  year about auto break ins in affluent neighborhoods?  Supervisor Stefani called for a public hearing and the SFPD promised an immediate response.

Yet we have drug dealers ringing the entire Turk and Hyde tot lot reserved for young kids in the Tenderloin and nobody outside the neighborhood seems to care. The drug dealer takeover of a city-owned mini park merits no civic response and nobody is calling the SFPD to the carpet for allowing this situation to fester.

Allowing drug dealers to take over a city owned tot lot is only further evidence that San Francisco puts the safety of gentrified neighborhoods first.

Is the problem a lack of resources?  City officials have added to the police staffing budget but not seen results.

In 2017 former Mayor Lee asked the SFPD  to greatly increase its foot patrols in Mid-Market. This led to roughly 20% of the Tenderloin police station’s officers being assigned to an area comprising a small portion of the district. Yet despite that influx the drug dealing problem did not get better; in fact, it got worse.

A public agency’s failure to produce anticipated results normally has consequences. But not for the SFPD. It plays by a separate set of rules. It need improve nothing nor accomplish anything in Mid-Market or the Tenderloin to avoid taking any heat from city officials.

Why does no top San Francisco police official ever pay a price for failing to fulfill what should be a core job requirement?

In San Francisco, police brass only get in trouble in two ways: when people of color are wrongfully shot or brutalized by the SFPD or when criminal activity reaches the city’s more affluent communities.

San Francisco prides itself on pursuing economic and racial equity. And on issues like tenants’ rights and free City College tuition San Francisco is  a national leader in addressing economic inequality. Yet when it comes to forcing low-income families, seniors and others living in working-class neighborhoods to live with open drug dealing on their sidewalks San Francisco’s policies are profoundly elitist and unequal.

Lack of Strategy

SFPD’s ongoing failure to sharply reduce if not erase such open drug activity is due to the lack of a consistent and effective strategy. The type of strategy that virtually eliminated open street drug dealing in New York City despite overall drug use remaining constant.

New York City used police resources to stop drug dealing in hot spot areas. By targeting police to the areas where dealers predominant, they eliminated the longtime business offices for generations of dealers (stop and frisk was only a very small part of that strategy and ending that practice has not brought street dealing back).

San Francisco has not employed hot spot policing. Instead, the SFPD allows drug sales in these areas. Police only making enough arrests to give the appearance that something is being done. The SFPD treats busy drug areas not as areas to be transformed but as places where such illegal activities should be contained.

Mayor-Police Disconnect

San Francisco’s mayors have power over many department heads. When they are not happy with an agency’s performance—as Mayor Breed recently made clear about the SFMTA—its leadership knows that they either address the mayor’s concerns or start looking for a new job.

But that method of accountability does not apply to top police brass.

I was at a community meeting at Turtle Tower in Little Saigon with former Mayor Lee last fall in which he said he said that the drug dealing and shooting up on the 400 block of Turk was “unacceptable” and that the longtime deli owners on the block should not have to tolerate such activity. He said that he wanted the police to take immediate action to address the problem.

A Deputy Chief and other top police brass were at that meeting. They took no actions to implement the mayor’s request. When I reminded the Deputy Chief a few weeks ago about what the mayor said at the meeting and how it was ignored, he seemed to have entirely forgotten about what the mayor said.

Two days after taking office, Mayor Breed made an unannounced visit to the Tenderloin. She declared herself very dissatisfied by what she saw, and said she wanted to see beat cops walking the streets.

But the following month saw very little increased police visibility in the Tenderloin. And when an officer was stationed on a block and stopping the drug dealing, the space would be reopened to drug dealers the next day. Such inconsistency reflects the lack of a clear strategy, which underlies the SFPD’s failure to make a dent in Central City drug dealing.

As I wrote at the start of 2018 (“How Police Fail the Tenderloin“), ever since the police redistricting in 2015 there have been insufficient officers assigned to the greatly expanded Tenderloin Station (which since 2015 has added Market Street and Sixth Street to its already overburdened turf). Yet Chief Scott refuses to reallocate officers to drug dealing hot spots, a failure that explains why open drug dealing has steadily worsened in these areas in recent years.

Noe Valley vs the Tenderloin

In early August I ran into two Tenderloin station officers after I had passed dozens of people shooting up on the 300 block of Ellis. I asked them why that was allowed.

They said that all they can do is cite people shooting up for a misdemeanor but they could not remove them from where they were sitting. I asked whether these folks would be allowed to sit shooting up on 24th Street in Noe Valley and one responded “You know that’s different.”

I’ve worked in the Tenderloin since 1980. I do know its different. Cadillac Hotel owner Leroy Looper explained to me over 35 years ago how the police operate in San Francisco. He said they always say they can’t stop illegal activities on Tenderloin sidewalks but if you brought those same activities to Union Street they would be removed by police within ten minutes.

San Francisco has passed a lot of progressive laws in the past 35 years, but when it comes to allowing drug dealing in non-gentrified neighborhoods nothing has changed. I look forward to the next D6 Supervisor making this a priority, which can start with a public hearing where Chief Scott has to justify why residents and workers in these areas are denied equal protection.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. In 1985 he led a March Against Crime through the Tenderloin that included Mayor Feinstein, Reverend Cecil Williams and others.


Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw's latest book is Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America. He is the author of four prior books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. He is also the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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