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Can CHP help tackle San Francisco’s drug crisis? Calls grow for state police intervention

People gather on the sidewalk along Hyde Street in the Tenderloin in San Francisco on Dec. 14, 2022. | Jason Henry for The Standard

Calls are growing for California Highway Patrol officers to join the effort in disrupting drug markets in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood.

Gov. Gavin Newsom made a surprise visit to the Tenderloin on Wednesday to see San Francisco’s fentanyl crisis firsthand, but made no public remarks. The governor was flanked by Attorney General Rob Bonta, and Mayor London Breed’s office confirmed that her chief of staff, Sean Elsbernd, was also present.

Since 2019, more than 2,000 people in the city have died from fentanyl overdoses. The crisis has sparked regular debate over establishing safe drug-use sites in San Francisco that backers say prevent overdose deaths but opponents say sanction illegal behavior.

CHP has been deployed into crime hotspots by the governor before—in 2021, Newsom deployed CHP officers into Oakland to supplement city police patrols in high-crime areas of the city after then-Mayor Libby Schaff requested it. In 2007, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger sent an anti-gang task force into Oakland at the request of then-Mayor Ron Dellums.  

A screenshot of a video shows Gov. Gavin Newsom touring San Francisco's Tenderloin neighborhood on Wednesday. | Courtesy JJ Smith

San Francisco Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin said he would welcome CHP to help address the fentanyl crisis and called for the agency to step up its presence in the city in an April 13 press release. “I’m not the mayor of this town, but I can hold the mayor accountable,” Peskin said. “This thing is out of control.”

“I reached out to the governor’s office last week and had a conversation with them,” Supervisor Ahsha Safai said, who is considering a run for mayor. “Their response was Oakland has asked for this in the past, Los Angeles has asked for this in the past, they are about 1,000 plus officers short and they are a lot more expensive than our officers are.”

SF’s police department has 335 fewer full-duty police officers than it did in 2017, with a total of 1,537 officers as of January, according to Supervisor Matt Dorsey, a former police communications staffer. A police staffing analysis indicated that the department needs upward of 2,100 sworn officers to satisfy city demands.

“We need all the help we can get,” said Supervisor Joel Engardio, who represents the Sunset. “Given the shortfall we have in SF police officers and the amount of time it’s going to take to build back that staff, it would be a good idea to have CHP in the city.” 

Some in San Francisco law enforcement are also getting behind the calls.

California Highway Patrol vehicle drives on a street in San Francisco Bay Area. | AdobeStock

“I think it’s a great idea,” said Ken Lomba, president of the San Francisco Deputy Sheriffs’ Association. “I think CHP is a professional and excellent law enforcement organization. If they are deployed, they will do a great job for the people of San Francisco. I would also like to say our deputy sheriffs could also help take this on and could do that by relieving police officers at the airport.”

The SF Sheriff’s Department said it already has two field training program vehicles on patrol in the Tenderloin from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays to Fridays and plans to have two more by the end of May, 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. Mondays through Thursdays.

“I’ve been writing asking the governor to send the CHP to the Tenderloin. That would be a great step forward,” said Randy Shaw, head of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic and Beyond Chron blogger. “The governor doesn’t just walk into the TL for the exercise.”

Mayor London Breed recently wrote to newly appointed U.S. Attorney Ismail Ramsey requesting support from the Department of Justice in light of the city’s police staffing shortage and the “sheer volume of drug dealing on our streets.” Exactly what she requested was not clear.

But not everyone is enthusiastic about the idea of putting CHP officers into the neighborhood.

Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, sits in her office in San Francisco, on Dec. 14, 2022. | Jason Henry for The Standard | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, said having CHP officers dispatched to the Tenderloin would amount to a return to the War on Drugs, which is now considered a policy that failed to address drug use and dealing.

“The Tenderloin is filled with people who have had their lives destroyed by a tried and failed war on drugs,” Friedenbach said. “We have to bring down demand, have access to treatment and housing post-treatment, and right now, that’s not the case in the city.”

A 2020 survey of more than 600 homeless people found that 34% had issues with drug or alcohol abuse and problems accessing treatment, and that 67% of people who were treated returned to the streets.