By David M. Greenwald
San Francisco, CA – In a press conference on Monday, leaders pushed back on the San Francisco Mayor, London Breed’s declaration of a state of emergency.
DA Chesa Boudin among others pushed back on a carceral solution to the problems in the Tenderloin while at the same time acknowledging the grave nature of the problems afflicting that part of the community.
“I want to be really clear arresting people who are addicted to drugs, jailing people who have mental health struggles, putting folks who are vending hot dogs or other food on the streets in cages will not solve these problems,” the DA said. Adding, “they are certainly not the only tools available or the only options available to us.”
“If you think I’m gonna defend the status quo in the Tendeloin, well, I hate to disappoint you,” said Dr. Vitka Eisen, CEO, HealthRIGHT 360. “No one here can make a case that the Tenderloin is fine just the way it is. People in poverty, people without enough food, people, without homes, people using drugs on the streets, crime, it doesn’t work for anybody being in the Tenderloin.”
“People need a myriad of services and behavioral health supports to address those concerns,” said Shamann Walton, President, San Francisco Board of Supervisors. “In fact, over policing people with mental health issues and substance abuse issues has been proven to add extra strain and hardship on police departments across the country, not improving public safety for anyone and most certainly putting law enforcement in an unwinnable situation.”
“We do have a public safety problem here in San Francisco,” Walton said. But he added, “locking people up for addictions and mental illness has never worked in this city or anywhere else.”
Public Defender Mano Raju said that the last thing their office wants to see is someone whose freedom they fought for “to slip back into the system.”
“That’s why we work to facilitate educational possibilities. That’s why we work to facilitate shelter and housing,” he said.
DA Chesa Boudin said, “Everybody in this city shares the frustration, we all share the concern and the pain about the situation in the Tenderloin.” He added, “Personally I am outraged every single time that I walk or drive through the Tenderloin – the raw human suffering, the flagrant violation of law, the neglect and the circumstances that we see that are going in direct violation of our most basic core human principles about caring for others in need.”
He added, “We must recognize that COVID-19 has made things in the Tenderloin, fair worse than it has ever been.”
Where he disagreed with some is that he believes there are other and better options than police and incarceration, “options that we know can and do work. We need to invest in them.”
Boudin noted that before he took office, the Legislative Analyst to the Board of Supervisors issued a report finding that 75 percent of the people booked into the San Francisco Jail were either drug addicted, mentally ill or both.
“We need to attack these issues at their roots. We need to remember that about 35% of the people in our county jail right now, as we speak are unhoused, they don’t know where they’re going to go,” he said.
In fact, the public officials don’t know where they are going to go when they are released, which he says makes them less safe, particularly when they are released late at night when the available shelters are closed.
“We cannot simply arrest and prosecute our way out of the problems that are afflicting the Tenderloin and so many parts of our city,” he said. “We can’t continue to wait for police to respond and make an arrest before we intervene. We must, as a city, we must intervene before crimes are committed. Before damage is done, we need real urgent investments in our public health system.”
At the same time, he said, “I share the sense of urgency. I will do everything in my power to make the Tenderloin safe for all of San Francisco.”
He said that DA’s have a critical role to play, “but we cannot do it alone.”
“If arrests and prosecutions alone could solve the drug crisis in this country or in this city, it would’ve been solve long ago.”
He noted, “we have invested over a trillion dollars in fighting the so-called war on drug. And where has it gotten us? What do we have to show for it?”
Boudin added that his office in the last two years “has filed felony drug cases in over 70% of the cases that the police have brought us over 70%, that’s higher than in 2018 or 19. What do we have to show for? Has it improved things? Has it solved the problems? No. We know, we know we cannot lock our way up out of addiction. We know we cannot use jails as an alternative to meaningful treatment or shelter.”
“Residents of the Tenderloin deserve a humanitarian response to the public health crisis that has been going on in their neighborhood for decades,” said Yoele Haile, Criminal Justice Program Director, ACLU of Northern California.
He explained, “The public funds that Mayor Breed intends to funnel to police departments will be better spent by addressing the root causes of crime and significantly expanding violence prevention, programs, mental health services, affordable housing, and other programs that directly address the grotesque racial wealth gap, poverty and despair that we see in neighborhoods like the Tenderloin and others throughout the country.”
“Recent calls by police associations and public officials to increase police funding are part of a coordinated backlash to last year’s movement to end police violence and misconduct after the murder of George Floyd,” he added. “Decades of data, as has been mentioned, shows that increased policing surveillance and incarceration do not solve these issues that we’ve been talking about. Instead they bring long term consequences and suffer the fall heaviest on poor underserved, and overpoliced communities of color.”