How Police Fail the Tenderloin

by on January 9, 2018

My Sunday San Francisco Chronicle article on the Tenderloin  described how the police department’s failure to stop open drug dealing holds the neighborhood back. Statistics from the city’s website shows the situation is even worse than I thought.

From October 1, 2017 to December 4, 2017 the police only made 42 drug arrests in the Tenderloin neighborhood. That’s a little over one per day.

Overall, less than 12% of Tenderloin arrests are drug-related. Yet residents overwhelmingly see drug dealing as the biggest police problem.

There are often 20-30 dealers at any one time openly selling drugs in the Golden Gate-Turk-Hyde-Larkin sector of the Tenderloin alone. Yet one feels lucky to see a single beat cop patrolling this area.

The Missing Police

Why are the police not arresting Tenderloin drug dealers? The command structure at the SFPD has different explanations.

Lack of Visibility

Prior to the October arrival of the new Captain of Tenderloin Station, police brass told the community that the problem was a lack of beat cops and police visibility in high-drug dealing areas. We met with Deputy Chief Mike Redmond in my office at 126 Hyde in June 2017; he saw the out of control drug activity firsthand.

Redmond assured us the situation would change. It has not. Police are less visible walking the sidewalks of the Tenderloin today than one year ago.

In the fall I met with Chief Scott. He echoed Redmond’s belief that increased visibility would make a difference. But as with Redmond’s assurance, nothing the Chief said should be done has occurred.

Lack of Resources

Captain Fabbri, who began in late October, has been very clear that he does not believe he has enough officers to stop Tenderloin drug dealing. He has said that there are often only four officers at any given time walking a beat in the entire Tenderloin neighborhood, and sometimes fewer.

Why there are not more police in a neighborhood where over 3000 kids are confronted regularly by drug dealers? A major reason is that the 160 Tenderloin station officers are spending their time outside the neighborhood. At Macy’s, the Westfield Center and other department stores.

The police prioritize arresting petty shoplifters over keeping the low-income families of the Tenderloin safe. That property crimes impacting the affluent get priority over protecting public safety among low-income  was again made clear yesterday when the police increased resources to stop auto break in’s in affluent areas.

If the SFPD has additional resources for auto break ins, they can also provide greater safety in the Tenderloin.

The Tenderloin’s drug dealing has worsened since former Chief Suhr changed the district boundaries. He put some of the highest crime areas outside the prior Tenderloin Station boundaries—Market Street, 6th Street, Hallidie Plaza, the Westfield Center—inside the new Tenderloin station.

36 of the station’s 160 officers are serving Market Street. Tenderloin Station covers Market Street all the way down to 3rd Street. The community predicted at a 2015 Police Commission hearing that expanding the station to 3rd Street would increase Tenderloin crime.

That is exactly what happened. The community has been calling for more police in the actual Tenderloin for decades, most recently when the neighborhood  turned in hundreds of signatures on a petition in 2013. But to no avail.

Chief Scott and Deputy Chief Redmond could move officers from less crime-filled neighborhoods like the Richmond and Sunset to the Tenderloin if they wanted to. But they don’t. They could also tell department stores to hire 10-B 5 officers (off-duty officers) to make arrests. But they do not want to do that either.

A group of residents, workers and business owners met with Mayor Lee last fall about the drug dealing. The Mayor acknowledged at the Turtle Tower meeting that the area around Turk and Larkin was out of control. He promised something would be done.

But the police top brass, who were at that meeting, provided no new resources to address the problem. Instead, it got worse.

When San Francisco has a large nonviolent march, the SFPD has tons of police available, some of whom get paid overtime. How about using overtime to stop drug dealers from openly doing business in the Tenderloin?

Once again, it is a question of priorities.

The SFPD only gets into trouble when officers kill unarmed people of color or when affluent neighborhoods complain about car break ins. Allowing drug dealing in the Tenderloin has never hurt any Captain’s future promotion.

No Strategy

Worst of all is that the SFPD has no strategy for eliminating or even reducing Tenderloin drug dealing.

No strategy at all.

Captain Fabbri told me that there is no point making arrests because those taken into custody immediately return to the streets and never face a risk of jail. That’s part of the longtime police response to resident complaints, which is to “Blame the DA and the judges.”

Of course, when you only make 42 drug arrests in over two months even if all went to jail it might not make a difference.

I am among those who have worked collaboratively with the police for years to reduce Tenderloin drug dealing. And what has the community’s great relationships with the police got us?

Check out Larkin between Turk and Eddy and Larkin between Hyde and Larkin for the answer.

Based on the lack of drug dealing on Hyde and Golden Gate yesterday it seems the most effective strategy is rain. Dealers don’t like being out in the rain.  The prospect of getting wet is proving a greater deterrent than the efforts of the SFPD.

This is the first in an ongoing series on why San Francisco’s police department fails to reduce drug dealing in the Tenderloin. I look forward to hearing what the D6 supervisor and mayoral candidates have to say about the issue.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. He is the author of  The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco


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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