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After Firing More Than a Dozen Staff, New SF DA Brooke Jenkins Says She Will Restore 'Law and Order to San Francisco'

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Two women sit at either side of a table in a news studio, in suits, havin ga discussion.
Host Priya David Clemens talks safety in San Francisco with new District Attorney Brooke Jenkins on KQED Newsroom on Friday, July 15, 2022.

Chesa Boudin is out, Brooke Jenkins is in. And though it's been less than two weeks since she took office, San Francisco's new district attorney has wasted no time in cleaning house.

On Friday, Jenkins fired at least 15 staffers from the district attorney's office, a similar sort of shake-up that Boudin made when he assumed office in 2020. It isn't out of the norm for newly elected officials to bring in their own staff to help implement their visions. At the time, San Franciscans who favored a stronger prosecutorial hand cried foul when Boudin cleaned house. His loss of attorneys even became a case made against him by proponents of his recall.

Jenkins was quick to defend her firing of attorneys in an interview with KQED Newsroom's Priya David Clemens.

"I want to bring in a new management team that is full of prosecution experience," Jenkins said.

Much hay has been made of the new direction Jenkins may take prosecutions in San Francisco. Will she begin prosecuting low-level drug dealers? Will she maintain Boudin's Innocence Commission to research wrongful convictions? Will she ease the gas on criminal justice reform efforts championed by Boudin? There also are questions around what will happen when attorneys who've been handling cases previously are suddenly replaced and the impact that may have on whether trials will be delayed.

In two interviews with KQED, Jenkins said she would maintain the Innocence Commission, but also said she wasn't ready to firmly state other policies. But her new hires may tip her hand, somewhat.

Jenkins also announced on Friday four new hires to her office, all women, including Nancy Tung, a strong opponent of Boudin in 2019 who ran to his right, favoring more traditional law-and-order policies, in contrast to Boudin's reformist positions. Before joining the office, Tung was considered a possible challenger to Jenkins in the November election.

Jenkins hired Tung to be her chief of special prosecutions and community partnerships.

The new district attorney discussed this new hire with KQED Newsroom host Priya David Clemens Friday, and on Thursday spoke to her broader criminal justice philosophy with KQED's Political Breakdown hosts Scott Shafer and Marisa Lagos. In her interview with Shafer and Lagos, Jenkins defended her critiques of Boudin and said voters should hold her to the same high standards.

Still, Jenkins added, "I can't snap my fingers and make crime disappear."

The following interviews have been edited for brevity and clarity.

KQED NEWSROOM

PRIYA DAVID CLEMENS: So you are one week to the day into the new job. And you have spent the day putting your house in order. You are in the process of bringing new people in, and you have fired more than a dozen people in the office as well. Tell us about what you're hoping to accomplish with these changes. 

BROOKE JENKINS: Yes, I want to bring in a new management team that is full of prosecution experience. I announced three new members of the team who comprise about 50 years of prosecutorial experience, which I think is going to be critical to moving forward with my promise to the public that accountability will be restored to the justice system in San Francisco and that we will be the best type of advocate that we can for victims in the courtroom.

One of those [new prosecutors you hired] is Nancy Tung, who had run against District Attorney Boudin in the past. Another worked alongside you in his office and also left under his time. So you are bringing in people who are opposed to that vision of what was. Tell me about the firings that you are in the process of putting forth.

Like I said, I just want to make sure that I have a very strong management team that is dedicated to balancing reform and public safety. And sometimes that takes some shifts, you know, as it does in any new administration.

But I'm very optimistic about what is going to happen with the management team in the office, and how we're going to begin restoring some law and order to San Francisco.

So you're now in the hot seat, right? What are you going to do that's different? What is the No. 1 thing that you think to yourself, 'Man, if I do nothing else in my time in office, I am going to get this thing done'?

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I think we have to go back to holding repeat offenders and repeat violent offenders accountable. I think that has been lost in this system and that cost us many lives over the past two years, having repeat offenders go out and reoffend in lethal ways. And so I am committed to making sure that those who decide to live a life of crime and chronically commit crime in this city [are held] accountable. As well as, as I said, balancing that need for reform.

So would it be fair then to say one metric by which the public should judge you would be to see if police arrest rates go up?

I wouldn't necessarily say that. I think a lot of it is how people feel. If people start to see more action on the part of the police and more action within the DA's office to hold offenders accountable, I think they should hopefully start feeling different as they walk about the streets. There will also be data, of course, they can look to.

How do you measure that feeling?

Can you walk outside and not be robbed? Right. Repeatedly, because I think that's a part of what's happening. Can we get the number of hate crimes to decline in this city? Can we stop people from feeling that this is a place where you can come and walk out with bags of goods from our convenience stores with no consequence? And I'm hoping that we can see numbers of those situations decline.

By when? We've got a few months until November, when you're going to be up [for election]. Potentially, former DA Boudin would run against you. We don't know who else may. Do you expect that people should be able to see the effect of your work by November?

Myself and the attorneys in my office are going to work tirelessly to make sure that we start seeing those effects immediately, and we've already begun that work. And so I am hoping that each and every day people see slow progress in that respect. 

Political Breakdown

SCOTT SHAFER: We were talking about what drew you into working in the DA's office. And you quit last year. You were a prosecutor in the homicide unit, and then you helped lead this recall of Boudin. Is it fair to say that as it became clear that he was going to lose, maybe post-June 7th, you lobbied for the job? Did you want it?

BROOKE JENKINS: No, I wouldn't say that's fair at the time that the recall was going on.

SCOTT SHAFER: What about after?

BROOKE JENKINS: After it passed, I did express interest in the job, in part because I wanted to make sure that whoever took over was somebody who was truly passionate and dedicated to this work. Who didn't see it as a stepping stone to something else political, had experience doing the work. And so that meant a lot to me.

MARISA LAGOS: What was the interview process like? My understanding is that the mayor made pretty specific demands of all the folks she talked to about what she wanted to see done. Did you make promises to the mayor and how did you present yourself?

BROOKE JENKINS: It was a very intense process. I will say that. I think I had three interviews with her. I would not say she made demands of me during that interview, but she did have a laundry list of questions about certain topics, certain issues, I assume, based on conversations she had had with members of the public and what was significant to them. And so she wanted to make sure that whoever took over, it appeared to me, had a concrete understanding of the office and of what it was going to take to help get this city turned around. 

MARISA LAGOS: I'm curious, though. You've talked about people needing to be patient. That one prosecutor, one DA, isn't going to change crime trends overnight. And yet the construct of the recall was very much putting the problems of the city on one person's back. Why should voters give you a different sort of opportunity to prove yourself? And how much time do you think we should give?

BROOKE JENKINS: I think what I was saying was that I can't snap my fingers and make crime disappear. And I made that clear every time that I talked about the recall that I didn't think everything was Chesa's fault. I never could have put that through.

MARISA LAGOS: A lot of the people who supported the recall did, though.

BROOKE JENKINS: OK. Well, I can't speak for them, but I can only speak for what I said. And I always attempted to be fair to him that, no, he can't control natural trends in crime. But what we do serve as when we sit in this district attorney's position, is someone who's supposed to serve as a deterrent to crime and to do our best to curtail it, and to hold those who choose to commit crime accountable. And that's where I believed his policies were failing and his management was failing.

SCOTT SHAFER: In terms of arrests, I mean, there was a lot of anecdotal evidence and some things caught on video that showed the police not really pursuing crimes in some cases that were underway, [like] shoplifting.

MARISA LAGOS: And I mean, we know from years of criminology research, somebody who's thinking they're going to get caught in the moment has way more to deal with than whether they face a long sentence.

BROOKE JENKINS: Yeah, but again, it's twofold. And it comes back to, if I'm a police officer and I am going to put myself in harm's way, one, I'm going to then risk, if somebody resists, what I have to do to put them in handcuffs and maybe be falsely accused of use of force or whatever may happen. Knowing that the DA is going to simply let the person out within 24 hours, maybe give them no penalty at all, give them diversion for, you know, selling whatever, being in possession of a hundred grams of fentanyl because it doesn't matter, then they're less incentivized to do their jobs.

MARISA LAGOS: Do you think they purposely undermine Boudin?

BROOKE JENKINS: No. That's not my interpretation of what was going on.

MARISA LAGOS: We've seen this also around Prop. 47, right? A lot of pushback by law enforcement, saying, "If we don't think we don't like this policy and we're not going to enforce misdemeanors because it won't result in anything." Should that really be the job of the police?

BROOKE JENKINS: I think all of us as players in this criminal justice system have a job to do, and we should do it regardless of whether or not we agree or disagree with certain laws. That was a part of my complaint about the previous administration, is the selectivity of which laws they chose to enforce. And so, no, as law enforcement agencies, we need to simply just do the function of our job, which is to enforce the laws of the state of California.

SCOTT SHAFER: Obviously, you're going to look at different cases in different ways than your predecessor. But can you be specific? For example, what will you be seeking? Gang enhancements where Boudin might not have? Will you be taking into account previous strikes in an effort to get a longer sentence potentially?

BROOKE JENKINS: I haven't made certain policy changes yet. I've tried to make it clear that I agree in large part with the spirit of many of Chesa Boudin's policies. That we should not be overusing gang charges or enhancements, that it's something that has historically been used against people of color and that we should be much more thoughtful about the occasions where that's appropriate.

But what I don't want to do — and what I've never believed in — is the removal completely of prosecutorial discretion. There are going to be certain circumstances where something may be called for and we have to use the laws available to us to bring justice in that case. But I always want to be thoughtful about the equity that goes on in this system. And so as I craft the policies going forward in the San Francisco district attorney's office, I'm going to try to make sure that we keep that spirit of fairness and equity in the way that we go forward.

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