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How serious is the Tenderloin’s drug problem? Here’s what city data says

A man using drugs on the street
Ken Reigenborn smokes using tinfoil in the Tenderloin in San Francisco on July 4, 2022. | Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard | Source: Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood is infamous for drugs, homelessness and crime.

Almost anyone who visits the area would not dispute its reputation: Substance abuse, poverty and human misery are out in the open.

But has the Tenderloin really gotten worse? And how does it compare to other “rough neighborhoods” in the city? The Standard analyzed incident reports from the San Francisco Police Department to find out. 

Unsurprisingly, the data makes it glaringly clear that the Tenderloin is the epicenter of the city’s drug crisis. 

Outside of drug use and sales, the area faces issues similar to many other neighborhoods in the city that struggle with poverty and crime—a fact that is sometimes overlooked in discussions of the problems facing San Francisco.

But the data shows that reports of several crimes are falling in San Francisco, with many of the most-affected neighborhoods recording fewer incident reports than there were five years ago. And recent upticks in incidents do not bring the numbers above their pre-pandemic levels. The data spans from 2018 until early October.


Nonetheless, the picture of drug incidents in the Tenderloin is extreme.

For nearly five years, the neighborhood has proved itself significantly worse for drugs than the second hardest-hit neighborhood in the city, SoMA. The Tenderloin’s drug incident numbers were consistently more than double SoMa’s.

The Tenderloin has contributed nearly two-thirds of all drug crime reports in San Francisco so far this year.

When we calculate the number of drug-related incidents per 10,000 people—which is more representative than absolute numbers—the picture hardly changes. There’s still a massive gap between the Tenderloin and all the other neighborhoods.

At the same time, incident report data says drug crimes are down across San Francisco.

These reports have their limitations. They are only generated when a police officer, or a member of the public for certain non-emergency crimes, files a report. For that reason, incident reports may not capture crimes that either go unreported or ignored by the police, like simple drug possession. 

Nonetheless, they offer a general picture: Since 2018, the total number of drug incident reports in the city has fallen sharply from a peak of nearly 2,800 that year to just over 1,850 this year. While the pandemic may be responsible for much of that decrease—incident reports were lowest in 2020 and 2021—the number of reports has not returned to its 2018 level.

The numbers per 10,000 residents also suggest that the Tenderloin’s drug problem has not gotten markedly worse; it just hasn’t improved much.

In 2018, there were 366 incident reports in the neighborhood per 10,000 people. So far this year, that number is 334.7.

Burglary and Assault

While the Tenderloin’s drug problem may be extreme, for other incident categories it looks less like an outlier.

Take incident reports for assault. For the past five years, the Tenderloin has recorded the most reports per capita of any neighborhood, but the margin between it and second-place SoMa has typically been much smaller. Moreover, between 2018 and October 2022, the number of incidents in all of the top five neighborhoods has dropped. 

Since 2020, the gap between the Tenderloin and SoMa has widened because assault incidents have fallen faster and more consistently in the latter neighborhood.

And for burglary incident reports, the Tenderloin is truly just one of many neighborhoods: So far this year, it is not even in the top five.

Instead, the leading neighborhoods for burglary incidents have consistently been the Financial District/South Beach, followed by SoMa.

But in both of these areas, burglary incident reports have decreased significantly since 2018.

In Data We Trust?

While the main conclusion from the data—that the Tenderloin’s drug problem far surpasses other neighborhoods—is difficult to deny, there are several caveats to understanding and interpreting the crime data.

The San Francisco Police Department stresses that, while incident reports “may serve as the basis for official crime statistics,” they are not synonymous with the “official” count of crime. That is governed by the FBI.

Beyond that, it’s important to question what the data tells us—and also what it doesn’t. And like many crime-related topics in San Francisco, the data is highly contested.

The data in question is generated by the SF Police Department, so “we’re playing on their field,” public defender and Tenderloin resident Peter Calloway said in a Twitter thread earlier this year. He has criticized media coverage that he believes uses statistics to exaggerate the crime problems in San Francisco and turn public opinion against progressive policymaking.

Calloway’s fundamental point is: Police data reflects the priorities and policies of law enforcement.

Moreover, counting incident reports does not tell us about what’s going on behind the reports, according to Kara Simon Casey, a supervisor at the Code Tenderloin homeless nonprofit. Her organization works at the Tenderloin Center, a de facto safe consumption site that emerged from Mayor London Breed’s 2020 emergency declaration to address San Francisco’s drug crisis.

Casey believes that the number of incident reports is influenced by the political preferences of the moment. With more people out and about after two years of Covid and a new district attorney taking a tough stance on drugs, there is bound to be more police action, she says.

She emphasizes that some incident reports are about misdemeanors like drug paraphernalia and that they tell us nothing about whether the person was ever actually prosecuted or spent time in jail for a drug violation. 

“Are you factoring how many people are getting prosecuted or just the number of arrests?,” Casey asked. “Because there are also arrests where people walk out the door [without being convicted].”

For this reason, she believes the data on arrests and citations is not an exceedingly strong measure of the real situation in the Tenderloin.

“You’re not arresting the problem,” Casey said. “You’re arresting the person.” 

Jiyun Tsai contributed additional reporting for this story.