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SF Mayor Breed Announces Latest Tenderloin Crackdown, Vows to End 'Reign of Criminals Destroying Our City'

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SF Mayor London Breed stands at a lectern on a balcony at City Hall.
San Francisco Mayor London Breed, flanked by Police Chief Bill Scott, left, on the balcony of City Hall on Dec. 14, 2021, announcing a plan to combat crime in the city's Tenderloin neighborhood. (Alex Emslie/KQED)

San Francisco Mayor London Breed announced a new public safety strategy on Tuesday, calling for a "tough love" approach to the city's Tenderloin neighborhood.

"It's time that the reign of criminals who are destroying our city, it is time for it to come to an end," Breed, flanked by San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott, told a bank of news cameras and reporters on the balcony of City Hall. "It comes to an end when we take the steps to be more aggressive with law enforcement, more aggressive with the changes in our policies and less tolerant of all the bulls— that has destroyed our city."

The mayor paraphrased a statement she made just a few months earlier, when her rhetoric began to shift away from championing policing alternatives and criminal justice reforms, as the prevalence of property crime in the city drew increased attention: "Our compassion should not be mistaken for weakness or indifference," Breed reiterated on Tuesday.

"What I'm proposing today and what I will be proposing in the future will make a lot of people uncomfortable," she said. "And I don't care. At the end of the day, the safety of the people of San Francisco is the most important thing to me, and we are past the point where what we see is even remotely acceptable."

The San Francisco Police Department has been vague about the costs of stepped-up enforcement in Union Square, the shopping and tourist destination neighboring the Tenderloin that was the target of an organized mass shoplifting operation last month, an incident that garnered national headlines — much to the consternation of city leaders. A surge of cops in the area since then has driven down thefts some 80%, according to SFPD, and racked up some 8,000 hours in officer overtime.

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One aspect of the crime-fighting plan that Breed and Scott are proposing for the Tenderloin, as holiday shopping shifts into high gear, aims to employ a similar strategy. Put simply: more cops on the ground.

"There are areas in this city that need constant, 24-hour police presence while we make those arrests," Scott said, portraying a chaotic environment of rampant open-air drug use and street crime.

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If Breed's budget request for more officers goes through, one thing is likely to change, Scott said: The police will stop ignoring open-air drug use.

"People will not be allowed to smoke meth, to smoke fentanyl, to inject heroin in their arms in public spaces," he said. "And it's very important that we are consistent and that we sustain this effort, because to do it for two weeks is not going to help us long-term."

But more police officers on the street will require significantly more funding, a move that comes roughly a year and a half since Breed championed a much different plan to divert $120 million away from law enforcement. But she said her intention to ask San Francisco's Board of Supervisors for supplemental police funding does not represent a reversal.

"I would say that things have changed as it related to our significant need for law enforcement, and so an investment is necessary as a result," Breed said.

More officers on the beat is just one part of San Francisco's latest Tenderloin crackdown. The mayor has also tasked the city's Department of Emergency Management to coordinate a holistic response, which includes expanding housing resources, cleaning the streets and improving lighting and physical conditions in the neighborhood.

Additionally, the plan includes two pieces of legislation: One, likely to be introduced in January, would amend the city's surveillance ordinance to allow police to access camera systems in real time — a move sure to stoke controversy. A separate ordinance would crack down on illegal street vending in an effort to stem the resale of stolen goods.

While some city leaders were quick to support the plan, others expressed serious doubts about its efficacy.

San Francisco Police Commissioner John Hamasaki pointed out on Twitter that tough-on-crime tactics have come to the Tenderloin before.

"The myth that we just need to 'prosecute harder' is garbage," he said, referencing the most recent federal crackdown targeting the Tenderloin that brought stiff prison sentences for drug dealing. "Dealing has gone up, supply has gotten bigger, violence increased. Is that success? Why are we doing the same thing and expecting a different result?"

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