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Politics & Policy

Tenderloin crackdown: Supervisors likely to approve state of emergency amid arguments over policing

A majority of the Board of Supervisors looks poised to approve Mayor London Breed’s State of Emergency Declaration on Thursday to address drug overdoses in the Tenderloin. Three supervisors told The Standard on Wednesday they plan to vote in favor, and at least three others are likely to support the Mayor, according to political observers and sources who asked not to be identified.

Matt Haney, Rafael Mandelman and Gordon Mar all said they plan to vote in favor of the emergency proclamation. Connie Chan told The Standard that Haney’s position would weigh heavily with her. Myrna Melgar did not comment but is seen as likely to support Breed. Ahsha Safaí and Catherine Stefani did not comment but both are allies of the mayor.

The state of emergency declared on Friday is specifically aimed at the drug overdose crisis in the Tenderloin, the epicenter of an epidemic that has claimed over 500 lives citywide in 2021. In particular, it would clear bureaucratic barriers to the opening of a “linkage site” connecting drug users to services.

But opponents of the emergency declaration see it as inextricably linked to the broader law-enforcement crackdown on drug use and street crime in the Tenderloin that Breed announced earlier last week.  

Dissenting voter Supervisor Dean Preston criticized the plan in a Twitter thread on Tuesday, objecting to it as a rehashed mechanism of the failed war on drugs. Breed has on numerous occasions advocated for compelled treatment and said during a press conference last week that the city is no longer going to give drug users a choice. 

“Threatening people with arrest doesn’t work as a way to get addicted folks into treatment,” Preston wrote.

Supervisor Matt Haney, whose district includes the Tenderloin, tried to placate critics while still supporting the Mayor’s policies.

“I recognize that the mayor has said some things about the Tenderloin, some of which are things I disagree with. … But I have always felt that we need a public health response on our streets that matches the deadly epidemic we are facing,” Haney told The Standard. “If someone is threatened with jail to go to a linkage site then they can just walk away ... They should not be threatened with jail. That should not happen.” 

In 2020, San Francisco tallied well over one-fourth of the total overdose deaths that occurred in New York City, which has 10 times the population. 

A woman named Lil Bit, who became addicted to drugs 2 years ago after her daughter died, displays her drug paraphernalia in San Francisco’s United Nations Plaza on Dec. 20, 2021. | James Wyatt

Breed’s emergency declaration pertains only to the region overseen by the Tenderloin Police Department and is separate from her previous announcement of a move to  increase police presence in the neighborhood, according to Andy Lynch, the mayor’s spokesperson. 

“Increasing police in an area of the City doesn’t require an emergency declaration,” Lynch said, emphasizing that the main intent of the order is to allow the city to move quickly in opening the linkage site.

If it passes, the emergency declaration would be in effect for up to 90 days, effectively eliminating processes that generally delay the implementation of city infrastructure. A similar ordinance was passed during the pandemic to expedite the purchase of shelter in place hotels and the sanctioning of safe sleeping villages. 

The passing of the declaration would also enable the director of the Department of Emergency Management, Mary Caroll, to implement temporary facilities pertaining to public health, behavioral health, social or housing services at her own discretion. 

Although fentanyl deaths were down last year in the city, fentanyl was a factor in more than 70% of overdose deaths between January and October 2021, an increase of nearly 20% since 2019, according to the mayor’s proclamation. The Tenderloin is one local hub for drug dealers and users, making it the target of recent efforts to crack down on drug use and help people struggling with addiction. Fentanyl deaths have risen by 23% across California this year, too, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data shows.

San Francisco isn’t the only major metropolis with an overdose problem. Midway through 2021, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office saw fentanyl deaths rise by nearly 60% in the city. The trends are the same across the nation, where this year, more than 100,000 people died of drug overdoses—setting a new record.

In response to Breed’s announcement earlier this week, Board President Shamann Walton, who plans to vote “no” tomorrow, held a press conference saying he won’t support the declaration or Breed’s desire to flood the Tenderloin with police. In lieu of incarceration, he wants to see expanded support for people with mental, behavioral health and substance abuse issues.

“Locking people up for addictions and mental illness has never worked in this City or in this country,” Walton said earlier this week.

Mandelman said while the Tenderloin is far from the only neighborhood in the city in need of help, citing the Castro in his own district as one example, he is in favor of the emergency declaration—and said he wants to see the mayor’s idea for a site to connect drug users with health services come to fruition.

While acknowledging his colleagues' concerns about policing, Mandelman, too, sees the two moves as distinct, and thinks Breed will activate the city’s police regardless of Thursday’s vote. 

“She believes sometimes police are going to be necessary, and so do I,” Mandelman said.

After a briefing from the Department of Emergency Management yesterday, Mar says he now has a better understanding of the plan’s emphasis on connecting drug users to services over increasing law enforcement and plans to support the emergency declaration.

Chan said she has not yet decided how she will vote tomorrow, and has “a lot of questions about this declaration” to ask at tomorrow’s board meeting. She emphasized the importance of Haney’s leadership in this issue because “he knows Tenderloin better than I do.”

Walton said he’s frustrated that the focus has stayed on the Tenderloin, when there have been 16 homicides in District 10, which includes Potrero Hill, Dogpatch, Hunters Point and the Bayview, just this year. 

“No one seems to be concerned,” Walton said.

Additional reporting from Han Li, Meaghan Mitchell and Mike Ege.