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From Fixing Homelessness to Arresting Fentanyl Dealers, SF Mayor Breed Bemoans City Hall Red Tape

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Mayor London Breed sits in a red chair on a stage, wearing black framed glasses, holding her hand up with her pointer finger up as if to articulate a point. The backs of two chairs can be seen at either side of her, out of focus, in the foreground.
Mayor London Breed speaks to KQED Political Breakdown hosts Scott Shafer and Marisa Lagos on stage at KQED's live event space, The Commons, on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2022. (Alain McLaughlin/KQED)

San Francisco needs the ability to more easily place residents with mental illness in restrictive conservatorships, with less red tape, to ease its homelessness crisis.

That’s according to San Francisco Mayor London Breed, who joined KQED Political Breakdown hosts Scott Shafer and Marisa Lagos at a KQED Live event Wednesday night.

Throughout the night, Breed answered wide-ranging questions covering new policies against drug dealers announced by her district attorney appointee, her own accomplishments on tackling city homelessness, and her much-maligned use of prewritten resignation letters for her city commission appointees.

Summing up her time as mayor, Breed said, “This bureaucracy has really tested my patience for getting results.”

Breed also dismissed the critiques that requiring her commission appointees to write undated letters of resignation allowed her undue influence over them.

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'“This is a real insider political thing,” she said. “The people who care about this are the people who, in most cases, just want to mess with me over something.”

The Board of Supervisors are planning a hearing on those letters next Tuesday.

And while Breed isn’t on this year’s ballot in San Francisco, her appointees certainly are up for election: District Attorney Brooke Jenkins, for instance, and District 6 Supervisor Matt Dorsey.

So while San Francisco voters won’t weigh in on Breed directly, they’ll certainly vote on her policies.

On Gov. Gavin Newsom's CARE Court

On stage at KQED’s venue, The Commons, Lagos and Shafer pressed Breed on her view of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s new CARE Court program. The governor signed the Community Assistance, Recovery and Empowerment (CARE) Act into law last month, creating a program of court-ordered treatment plans for people deemed to be suffering from severe mental illness.

People with mental disorders who decline those plans could be placed under a conservatorship and ordered to comply. But Breed said that doesn’t go far enough.

“I think that the challenge is, we need more and I think we need to be bold,” Breed said. “And we need to have an honest conversation about people, some people who can get help and maybe be stabilized and be better and get OK. And there are others who need to be in a locked mental health facility who sometimes are violent.”

Breed said that the complaints about old-style mental health facilities miss that modern society now has more evidence-based treatment of mental illnesses.

Watch the full interview with Mayor London Breed and KQED Political Breakdown hosts Scott Shafer and Marisa Lagos on YouTube. 

She also bemoaned a conservatorship law authored by state Sen. Scott Wiener, which was approved in 2018, as being too onerous. It requires eight psychiatric holds before a person can be conserved by the state.

“That threshold needs to be lowered,” Breed said.

Changing the city’s approach may even be more useful than the $1 billion annually the city now spends on homelessness.

“It’s not about the money,” Breed said (though she did defend the city’s record on homelessness, saying San Francisco saw a 15% reduction in unsheltered homelessness in the past year, and a reduction in homelessness by 3.5%, even as other Bay Area cities saw no reduction).

She framed her view in personal terms: A man she knew who was kind to his community, who gave flowers to women he knew and lived in a senior home, began to develop dementia and “get violent,” Breed said. She tried to get him stabilized, to take his medication but, ultimately, could not legally force him to. He’s now homeless on the streets of San Francisco.

“So why is that OK to say that he has rights to say ‘I don’t want help’?” she said.

“We know he has dementia. We know he’s never been this kind of person before. So he needs to be cared for, differently.”

Breed on prewritten resignation letters for her appointees

Breed has come under fire recently after the San Francisco Standard revealed she required prewritten resignation letters from many of her appointees to city commissions, like the police commission or San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency board.

Since those commissioners are supposed to exercise their independent judgment and expertise, the City Attorney’s Office advised Breed to end the practice, saying the prewritten resignation letters could threaten appointees' independence and show “undue influence.” The appointees often vote on controversial issues, like the election of a police commission president.

Onstage at KQED, Shafer began to introduce the letters situation, when Breed interrupted.

“You gonna talk about my letters?” Breed asked Shafer playfully. “Why are we focused on that when there are so many important things to be focused on?”

Breed said the practice of having prewritten resignation letters was inspired by a port commissioner, Mel Murphy, who would not resign when Mayor Ed Lee asked him to, which affected port commission business. That’s happened to her, she said.

That’s “part of why we did what we did, and I take full responsibility for it, because it was my decision. It was not an illegal thing to do. But it was necessary if I ever needed to use it,” Breed said.

Breed then turned things around on Shafer and asked him, “Why do you think it’s so important?”

Shafer, reflecting the advice from the City Attorney’s Office, said, “Because it implies that you want to have a level of control, when their job is to oversee these departments and be independent.”

Breed said, “I do want to have a level of control. That’s not even a question, because I’m held accountable for it.”

She later added, “Commissioners aren't even elected. The buck stops with me.”

Breed on fentanyl dealers

Former DA Chesa Boudin was recalled, in part, for his more progressive approach to prosecutions, sometimes sending those arrested for drug dealing to diversion courts. Still, critics have taken Breed, and new DA Jenkins, to task for their more hard-line approach to drug dealers and drug users.

Speaking to that, Breed told Shafer and Lagos that her lived experience lets her easily shake off critics. She grew up in housing projects in the Fillmore neighborhood, where drug addiction and death touched her family. Other would-be “saviors,” she said, don’t know that life.

“A lot of my experiences of who I am shaped my policy. But also how unapologetic I am,” she said. “It’s why I’m not afraid to stand up for what I believe in even if it’s controversial.”

In December last year, Breed notoriously complained about the “bullshit that has destroyed our city,” when announcing a police crackdown in the Tenderloin, which, debatably, may never have materialized. Shafer asked Breed about the motivation behind those comments.

“I think that came about because I was angry. I was frustrated,” Breed said. She said she made the comments after speaking with immigrant families in the Tenderloin, who told her about violent encounters in the neighborhood through tears.

“Why do people who deal drugs have more rights than people who try to get up and go to work every day and take their children to school?” Breed asked. The crowd at KQED applauded.

Shafer pushed back and asked, “Do they, though? Have more rights?”

Breed said she wanted to talk about “the reality of the situation,” and that there are many people who come from Honduras dealing drugs. The San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, in turn, has argued police are racially profiling by arresting mostly Latino drug dealers.

“It’s nothing racial profile about this, we all know it, it’s the reality, it’s what you see, it’s what’s out there,” she said. “So we have people advocating for folks who are selling fentanyl that’s killing people. But what about the kid that got ahold of some fentanyl by accident and died? What about the families?”

“So for me, we can't just, you know, throw our hands up and say, ‘People have rights,’” Breed said.

Breed on SFPD arrest rates

Stories abound in local media about San Francisco Police Department officers failing to make arrests. That phenomenon has been blamed on dwindling police staff (which led to raises for police in San Francisco’s recent budget), and low morale under former DA Chesa Boudin.

But some critics of the SFPD alleged officers were on an unofficial work stoppage to undermine Boudin and his progressive policies, which police often criticized.

Onstage at KQED, Lagos asked Breed, “Do you think the police purposefully undermined the former DA?”

“You know, I'm not going to guess what someone did or didn't do,” Breed said.

Even though Boudin sometimes disagreed with the mayor and the police department on prosecution policy, she said, it shouldn’t stop officers from fulfilling their oath.

“You swear to serve and protect,” she said, “and if you do that, you can’t deliberately try to undermine someone because you don’t like who that person is. You have to do your responsibility based on the oath that you take. And I think, if that were the case, it’s really unfortunate. And in some cases, some of those people should not be wearing the uniform.”

Still, she said, the police department needs support as it’s short more than 500 officers.

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“Building up this department is going to take some time,” she said.

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