Three months after Mayor London Breed promised to put more police officers in the tenderloin to combat drug dealing and open-air drug use, the city added 20 officers during daytime hours, bumped up to an additional 30 on Wednesdays.
Before the boost, there were about 108 officers assigned to the tenderloin, although a little over 90 work at a time with officers out on leave. The estimated cost for the voluntary overtime is $175,000 a week. Officers will be deployed for at least three weeks, when the department will reassess.
The move comes after Breed pledged in mid-December to add police to the area to address resident and business owner concerns about crime, but no additional resources were sent. Critics said more officers would only further traumatize a troubled neighborhood and risked criminalizing people struggling with addiction.
Police Chief Bill Scott told the Chronicle outside the Tenderloin Police Station on Wednesday that the presence of cops deters drug dealing and use.
“We’re working hard,” Scott said. “I know it hasn’t been to everybody’s satisfaction, but we will continue to … do everything we can to disrupt this and make (drug dealers) go somewhere else.”
But he also said that officers alone aren’t “going to solve the opioid epidemic. … Police is a part of that, not the total answer…but rest assured, we can make a difference when we have the right staffing out and they do what we need them to do.”
The increased deployment comes as Breed’s emergency ended Thursday, although street cleaning, outreach and the linkage center to connect people on the streets to services will continue. Police say drug dealing and violent crime are their priorities, but Scott said with the linkage center now open, officers in some cases arrest people who repeatedly continue to use drugs on the streets.
He tries to do what community members told him they want and he agrees with the strategy: Cops should deter drug activity and drug users should get directed to services, but arrests can be appropriate at times.
Many residents have expressed frustration that the mayor’s pledged crackdown hasn’t yet resulted in the changes on the streets and questioned whether more officers would make a dent in drug dealing. Three supervisors said this week that dealing was just as bad or even worse than three months ago. Community members have said problems worsen at night when community ambassadors go home, which Scott acknowledged was an issue, but new officers will only be on patrol during daylight hours.
While many don’t notice a difference on the streets, weekly police reports show officers seized more than 10 kilos of the opioid fentanyl in the 12 weeks since the emergency. That compared with 5 kilos before the emergency and less than 3 kilos during the same period last year.
Drug arrests increased from 71 in the 12 weeks before the emergency to 143 after it. However, there were more drug arrests — 161 — in the same time frame last year.
The reasons for arrests include possession, which results in drug seizure and a citation to show up for court, and possession with intent to sell, which can result in jail booking.
Police data comparing Dec. 13 through Jan. 30 to the same time period last year shows arrests for drug sales dropped slightly — from 88 to 85 — while possession arrests increased from 5 to 12.
The mayor and her top official running the Tenderloin emergency response said the city would start by offering services to people using drugs on the streets, but police could arrest those who refused to go to the linkage center and continued harmful behavior.
Randy Shaw, head of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic that runs housing for formerly homeless people, said the emergency was “a crackdown on drug dealers that never happened.” He said while the 300 block of Hyde Street was clear Wednesday morning, dealers were back in the afternoon.
Scott said it was often a “cat and mouse game,” but that moving dealers to another block, and following them there, is worth it to “disrupt their behavior.” Deployment needs to be consistent, but the city needs more officers, he said.
“We can’t spend money like this forever,” he said of the new overtime.
The mayor has said police short-staffing — the department is more than 500 officers below levels recommended by a consultant — prevented her crackdown. Her spokesperson Andy Lynch said the delay in deploying officers in the tenderloin was because of the shortage and the coronavirus omicron wave, which meant hundreds of police staff couldn’t work at the start of the year.
But some Tenderloin community members questioned city priorities with roughly 40 officers deployed to Union Square after mass looting of luxury stores the week before Thanksgiving. That started a month before the Tenderloin emergency and cost the city $2.4 million in overtime from Nov. 20 to Dec. 10 alone.
Lynch defended the use of police in Union Square.
“We should be able to have sufficient police for every neighborhood in the city, which is why the mayor will continue to push for more officers in the upcoming budget,” he said.
Some supervisors, advocates and residents would rather see money funneled to alternative responses, housing and treatment.
“Our concern is that by increasing police presence in the tenderloin, we are increasing arrests and criminalization of these systemic issues that need other types of solutions than policing,” said Juliana DePietro, interim deputy director of programs at nonprofit Glide, who used to oversee harm reduction services for people who use drugs for the organization.
Even if drug dealers are arrested, judges can release them before trial, so they may return to the same streets. During the first nine months of last year, 65 people out of 337 arrested for dealing in the Tenderloin were arrested more than once, according to police. Four were arrested four times.
When asked whether he had cooperation from judges and the district attorney, Scott said “he would “like to see more accountability” but added that doesn’t mean “people locked up for drugs for life.”
Police presented fewer narcotics cases to the district attorney over the past two years than 2019, although police presented fewer overall cases. District Attorney Chesa Boudin has charged a higher percentage of narcotics cases than his predecessor, but conviction rates are down. The Public Defender’s Office said the number of drug charges hasn’t changed in the past three months.
Aref Elgaali, who runs a restaurant by the Tenderloin Police Station, said he’s seen cleaner streets but not more police, which the community requested. He wanted officers to arrest more dealers and move people off the streets, saying it’s not humane to leave them there.
“Let’s be fair, they can’t do all those things in three months,” he said.
People who use drugs on the streets said they haven’t noticed a difference in enforcement.
“I haven’t seen them arrest a single person,” said TJ Norton, who lives in the Tenderloin and was smoking marijuana at UN Plaza on Tuesday. He has heard police tell people using drugs to go to the linkage center, where drug use is allowed, and has noticed fewer people on the streets during the day, but otherwise said it’s “pretty much the same.”
Mallory Moench (she/her) is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: email@example.com Twitter: @mallorymoench