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SF police chief says new patrols should have ‘tremendous impact’ on Tenderloin drug dealing

San Francisco police are hoping to put a significant dent in open-air drug dealing in the Tenderloin by increasing patrols in the neighborhood, but acknowledge that law enforcement alone cannot solve the city’s overdose crisis.

During a Police Commission hearing Wednesday, the San Francisco Police Department doubled down on its commitment to assigning as many officers as possible to patrol the Tenderloin and nearby areas that struggle with drug sales. Police first announced the plan with Mayor London Breed in May.

Police Chief Bill Scott said he is hopeful that the increased foot, bicycle and motorcycle patrols in the Tenderloin, U.N. Plaza and Mid-Market will have a “tremendous impact” on the longstanding open-air drug market, which helped fuel about 700 drug overdose deaths last year and has also been linked to shootings and other violence involving dealers.

The idea is to have enough cops in the area that drug dealers cannot simply return to a block after being removed by police, and to make strategic arrests.

“The reality is that when we are out there, the drug dealers aren’t,” Scott told the commission. “Not to say that we can prevent everything, but we definitely see a difference when we are out there.”

But Police Commissioner John Hamasaki, a vocal critic of the department, questioned the point of increasing enforcement when arrests and seizures have not stopped dealers from proliferating for years. Hamasaki said more attention and resources should be given to alternatives to policing like the Street Crisis Response Team or to opening safe-injection sites for users, a move New York City made just this week.

“We have done the same thing for decades and we can’t expect a different result from doing it,” Hamasaki said.

Scott also acknowledged that increasing deployment will not solve addiction, and his department supports alternative programs.

Scott said the success of the new effort depends on the department being able to sustain increased deployment at Tenderloin station. Assigning more officers to the Tenderloin means moving cops from other stations. And currently, police brass say the department is short more than 400 officers.

On top of that, police acknowledge that responding to the drug trade with more enforcement only addresses the supply side of the issue.

At the hearing, Tenderloin Station Capt. Chris Canning said the path forward is for the department to engage in a more collaborative approach with service providers.

“This is a challenge that we’re not going to enforce or arrest our way out of,” said Canning, whose station meets daily with community partners under the Mid-Market Vibrancy and Safety Plan announced by Breed in May.

Still, the department is making arrests and seizing narcotics by the kilo.

In the first three quarters of 2021, Canning said his station made nearly 1,200 felony arrests, including 425 arrests related to drug dealing or possession. Officers also seized 37.2 kilos of narcotics—more than twice as much as was rounded up in the same time frame last year. That amount included 19.3 kilos of fentanyl.

During the hearing, Police Commissioner James Byrne said he supported the department bringing on more officers. Byrne, who has focused on the Tenderloin drug trade since joining the commission months ago, seemed to suggest that police should push drug dealers out of San Francisco.

“I have noticed a huge change, but let us finish the job,“ Byrne said. “Let them go. Let them hop on BART and go back to wherever they came from. It’s nice that fentanyl is being seized, but what is more important is the streets being returned to the neighbors and the people who live in the Tenderloin.”

The Police Commission is expected to hear an update on the department’s progress tackling Tenderloin drug dealing early next year.