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'Compassion Is Killing People': SF Mayor London Breed Pushes for More Arrests to Tackle City's Drug Crisis

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Mayor London Breed speaks outside at a lectern, next to a bearded white man, as a large crowd looks on.
San Francisco Mayor London Breed speaks to a crowd gathered at San Francisco's United Nations Plaza on May 23, 2023, during a public discussion with the Board of Supervisors about the city's fentanyl drug crisis. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

An attempt by San Francisco leaders to hold an outdoor question-and-answer session about the city’s drug crisis was thwarted Tuesday afternoon after protesters at United Nations Plaza shouted over Mayor London Breed and Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin.

After retreating to City Hall, Breed and Peskin — who had requested the special off-site location for the full Board of Supervisors meeting to put a spotlight on problems in the area — continued to discuss how the city is addressing ongoing problems with open-air drug dealing, drug use and dangerous street conditions, all of which UN Plaza has come to symbolize.

Breed touted many of the mental health services and programs the city has under her leadership and praised efforts to prioritize treatment over punitive approaches. But she also said accountability has been lacking, and suggested that the city’s public health-based approaches have reached their limits of efficacy in tackling the current crisis.

“Force is going to have to be a part of it, whether people like it or not. We’re going to have to do more,” Breed told the Board of Supervisors inside City Hall, in response to a question from Peskin about whether she intended to clear outdoor drug dealing and potentially reignite emergency orders, such as the one she declared in 2021 for the Tenderloin neighborhood; for 90 days, the order galvanized multiple city departments to address challenges in the area.

“At the end of the day, we can’t just keep throwing up our hands and think all of a sudden what we are doing is working,” she said. “Compassion is killing people. And we have to push forth some tough love to change what’s happening on the streets of San Francisco.”

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Although Breed did not specifically comment on a potential new emergency order, she highlighted the San Francisco Police Department’s new partnership with the California Highway Patrol and the California Army National Guard, or CalGuard — announced by Gov. Gavin Newsom at the end of April — targeting drug trafficking and dealing in the city.

“We can’t force the state and the feds to come to the table, but finally they are coming to the table in a way that’s not necessarily traditional,” Breed said. “They are invited to work with us even to the point where if they want to oversee the operation … we will follow direction. Whatever it takes. I am willing to humble the city to do whatever is necessary to get to a better place.”

Breed also asked the board to pass her upcoming budget without any reductions and to “support the arrests for those who are struggling with addiction, especially when they break the law, to get them into drug treatment court and the support they so desperately need.”

Supervisor Dean Preston, whose district includes the Tenderloin, compared the approach to tough-on-crime drug policies known collectively as the war on drugs, which began in the ’70s under President Richard Nixon and was greatly expanded in the ’80s under President Ronald Reagan. Black men in particular were vastly overrepresented in the increased arrests during the crack and heroin epidemics.

“What she’s proposing is arresting people for drug use. And that is a key part of the war on drugs, and it does nothing other than get people off the streets temporarily — and then in the end, increased drug use and increased overdoses,” Preston told KQED. “The only thing that this accomplishes is getting people out of sight for a few hours at a very high price to the city.”

In a press release, Preston later added: “If the Mayor, Supervisors, and other City leaders care about the Tenderloin, they should make sure the Tenderloin gets the investments the community needs in the budget process, support our $10 million emergency Tenderloin public safety supplemental, deliver the long promised Tenderloin wellness hub without further delay, house people who are unhoused, and make treatment on demand a reality.”

A middle-aged Black man stands behind a camera, in a crowd, shouting.
A protester shouts during an unusual public Q&A session with San Francisco Mayor London Breed and Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The city is currently developing a pilot program to address when someone on the street is “so far under the influence of drugs that they may pose a danger to themselves or others,” according to a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Emergency Management.

The program, which could involve enforcing public intoxication laws, will be included in the mayor’s upcoming budget proposal.

“The uncomfortable conversations have to happen. I get that people have an issue that we are getting more aggressive to people with addiction,” Breed told the board. “I’m one of those people. I lost a sister to drug overdose.”

But while Breed’s sister struggled to access treatment services years ago, Breed said, many more facilities and beds have become available under her leadership, and the wait time for treatment has since dropped.

Public health and addiction advocates, however, stress that there are still not enough resources to meet the need San Francisco is facing due to fentanyl, an opioid 50 times more potent than heroin that has led to a spike in overdose deaths in the city in recent years.

And they point to research that has shown that more incarceration could lead to higher overdose rates among offenders shortly after their release.

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Located in the heart of San Francisco a short walk from City Hall, the historic UN Plaza is flanked by the Orpheum Theater to the west and Market Street to the south. On Wednesdays, it hosts one of the city’s largest farmers markets. But the plaza has also become ground zero for debates over policing the drug use and sales that frequently occur there.

Around 100 people gathered in the plaza Tuesday for the unusual, short-lived Board of Supervisors meeting, which cost more than $4,000 to stage, according to The San Francisco Standard.

One protester allegedly threw a brick toward the speaking area after Supervisor Peskin recessed the outdoor hearing and moved it back to City Hall.

Other demonstrators held signs and demanded justice for Banko Brown, a 24-year-old Black trans man who was shot and killed by a Walgreens security guard last month. District Attorney Brooke Jenkins recently declined to prosecute the guard.

“Mayor London Breed needs to step down. She could not handle it,” said Charie Pittman, one of the protesters, who said she works at a shelter in the Bayview. “It is over her head. She has too much piled up on her plate, starting from COVID, chemical warfare, racism and religion.”

KQED’s Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez contributed to this story.
This story has been updated.

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