Why SFPD Fails to Close Drug Markets

by on June 26, 2023

Photo shows Dealers outside Elk Hotel, 670 Eddy. June 20, 2023
Dealers outside Elk Hotel, 670 Eddy. June 20, 2023

Police Insist on Failed Strategy

It appears that the city has decided to make the area in front of the Elk Hotel a drug containment zone. It’s pretty much the same dealers every day”—Grace Wong, Associate Director of Property Management, Tenderloin Housing Clinic

The 600 block of Eddy houses large open air drug markets. The SFPD’s “disruption” strategy reduced dealers in February and March but today the north side of the 600 block is worse than ever. Dealers primarily converge in front of two nonprofit buildings, the Elk Hotel and the Arnett Watson Apartments.

Chief Scott, Assistant Chief Lazar, and Tenderloin Captain Chin have been urged to close this drug market. Yet, as the above photo shows,  the dealers remain.

The other longtime Tenderloin drug market on 300 Hyde was also largely shut down in February and March. Dealers now freely operate around the corner on Ellis. The west side of 300 Hyde remains filled with drug users, so the overall drug activity in the area is worse. This despite public claims of a crackdown.

Mid-Market and SOMA have seen a similar lack of progress.

There is something very wrong here.

Police Lack Visibility

The problem is clear: the SFPD measures progress by arrests and recovered fentanyl rather than by a reduction in dealers. So while press releases extol “progress,”  open air drug markets thrive.

Uniformed beat cops are rarely seen in the Tenderloin. That’s because SFPD wants its Tenderloin officers to be undercover. This produces greater arrests at the expense of deterring drug dealing.

The SFPD claims to be allowing drug dealing in front of the Elk because it is “doing an operation.” The operation requires dealers not to be interfered with so they can be arrested by undercover officers.

But here’s the flaw: after the arrests officers are gone for two to three hours. The open air drug market quickly resumes.

There’s a better strategy: consistent visibility. Dealers routinely flee when their scouts announce the imminent arrival of uniformed police. If two uniformed officers were posted on the 600 block there would be no dealers near the Elk.  No “operation” would be needed to close the drug market.

The SFPD’s reliance on undercover officers is even more flawed when you consider that dealers are arrested multiple times and still get released awaiting trial. So the SFPD knows that its arrest strategy won’t reduce drug markets.

I have repeatedly asked Chief Scott to follow the successful precedent from 2014 whereby two posted officers at Turk and Taylor permanently cleared 50-100 dealers from the block. But the Chief and all of his command structure insist on the undercover  strategy—despite Mayor Breed’s repeated calls for more beat cops in the Tenderloin

Mayor Lee had to overrule then-Chief Suhr to get the fixed posts that cleared the dealers from the unit block of Turk (See “The Big Lie About Arresting Drug Dealers,” January 16, 2023).). Mayor Breed may have to do the same to fulfill her commitment to closing drug markets.

Coordination and Communication Lacking

The city’s efforts to close drug markets still lack coordination. We don’t have a top official marshaling resources and holding agencies accountable. This lack of coordination will become even more problematic when sheriff’s deputies join the effort in early July.

Nor is there much communication between the SFPD and neighborhood stakeholders. The police have never explained why the successful disruption strategy suddenly stopped. They have never explained the lack of consistency in providing enforcement of hot spot blocks.

When the Tenderloin Business Coalition met with Mayor Breed and Chief Scott in February, both agreed that consistency of enforcement was key. You can’t have police crackdown on a block one day and disappear from that block the next

But there is no consistency of when and where enforcement occurs. So dealers pushed out one day know they can resume business in the same location the next.

If San Francisco cannot close open air drug dealing on 600 Eddy, it has even less chance of success in closing the more expansive dealing in Mid-Market and SOMA.

We know what it means when people keep repeating policies they know only bring failure. San Francisco must adopt a more effective strategy for closing drug markets.


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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