City and state officials gathered Friday to announce details of a plan to crack down on San Francisco’s open-air drug markets in a new partnership authorized by Gov. Gavin Newsom.
At least 200 people have died from drug overdoses since January this year; 159 of those deaths involved fentanyl. The synthetic opioid has driven an increasingly deadly overdose epidemic in San Francisco.
Now, the state is stepping in, and House Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi called on the federal government to intervene as well.
San Francisco Mayor London Breed, District Attorney Brooke Jenkins and Police Chief Bill Scott were joined by California Highway Patrol Commissioner Sean Duryee and California National Guard Major Gen. Matthew Beevers at a press conference Friday detailing their new cooperation.
“We are making the arrests," Breed said. "We are bringing charges. We are being as aggressive as we possibly can to hold people accountable."
Breed said Friday the full details of the plan will not be released, but here’s what we know about it.
1. More Officers, Starting Monday
California Highway Patrol officers will arrive in San Francisco on Monday, under the express orders to “proactively enforce the law” to combat open-air drug dealing in the hard-hit Tenderloin and SoMa neighborhoods.
That means patrols will be one part of their deployment, but CHP personnel will also train police to better detect drug and alcohol-related crimes in the city. The organization also pledged to investigate more complicated criminal cases, especially those related to illegal opioid trafficking.
The CHP's Duryee clarified at the Friday press conference that his officers will “supplement” rather than replace San Francisco police and their services.
SFPD also noted that it has deployed more officers in the Tenderloin and says the increased patrols have helped officers seize over 39,000 grams of fentanyl—or roughly 85 pounds—from the streets this year.
“The Tenderloin, the epicenter of the crisis we’re having with fentanyl, is a very small area—about a square mile,” the police chief said. “SF police have made 269 arrests in a very small area in the course of six months.”
2. Data, Data, Data
The second core focus of the state-local partnership is intelligence gathering.
The Governor’s Office said 14 California National Guard service members will provide this kind of intelligence support in a “multijurisdictional task force,” though the organization will primarily focus on “dismantling trafficking rings.”
It is unclear what this work will entail, or whether CalGuard’s work will collect risk-prevention data to help shape public health policy surrounding fentanyl.
“Similar CalGuard-supported operations conducted last month statewide resulted in the seizure of 4.7 million fentanyl pills and 2,471 pounds of fentanyl powder,” the Governor’s Office said in a statement.
CalGuard will also help SFPD with administrative tasks so city officers are free to patrol and conduct other law enforcement duties. The announcement comes after San Francisco police received $25 million in extra funding to combat a staffing shortage and support overtime patrols.
3. District Attorney Crackdown
Jenkins showed up to Friday’s presser hot off an arrest involving a major fentanyl dealer—a case she says is indicative of her office’s crackdown on dealing and using.
“Today we announced charges against an individual who was in possession of five kilos of fentanyl—that could kill more than this entire city,” Jenkins said of the 11-pound seizure. “That individual, we argue, should be detained based on the public safety risks that they present.”
Jenkins fired more than a few digs at her predecessor Chesa Boudin, arguing that her office’s more “aggressive” approach to the fentanyl crisis would finally deliver results to city residents.
“This [partnership] was an opportunity that, at least from the vantage point of the National Guard, was offered to my office about a year or two ago, but was declined,” Jenkins said. “That was not in the best interest of San Francisco.”
Boudin refuted these claims, telling the Standard his administration was working with the National Guard and “several agencies” in his time as DA.
“During my entire tenure, we had a data analyst assigned from the National Guard,” Boudin told The Standard. “It did not add any value, sadly. We asked them for more analysts when we were short staffed but they didn’t give them to us.”
The local-state plan does not appear to provide direct support to the DA’s Office. Rather, Jenkins is backing the interagency approach to increase arrests and prosecute high-level dealers and drug rings.
4. The Curious Absence of the Harm Reduction Approach
Though the state-local partnership explicitly stated it will not criminalize those struggling with substance use, available information about the operation made little mention of public health initiatives.
City leadership came under fire in December when the controversial Tenderloin Center—a safe consumption site—closed. Public health advocates said that the center’s offerings exemplified the benefits of harm reduction strategy, as it reversed some 320 overdoses and clients relied on the space for basic needs and services. Others argued it simply sanctioned illegal drug use.
Breed defended her administration’s “extremely generous” approach to social services at the press conference Friday, but noted that the main focus of the local-state plan was law enforcement and prosecution.
“The amount of money we spend for nonprofits and organizations to help with treatment and second chances and support are mostly in the Tenderloin, SoMa communities—that will not change,” Breed said. “What was missing was accountability.”
5. Policy Gridlock
Many San Franciscans are frustrated with the city’s response to the fentanyl crisis. Though the drug overdose epidemic has steadily worsened over the past few years, conversations about fentanyl policy have reached a fever pitch as local and state lawmakers clash on approaches.
“People are fed up with it, we are fed up with it and our attention needs to be on the people who are causing the problems and not on each other,” Scott said. “Our attention needs to be on drug dealers that are making this happen.”
Policymakers at the state Capitol passed a slew of fentanyl-related measures at a dramatic Thursday hearing, but it wasn’t without controversy. Two bills that would increase penalties for dealers failed to advance—despite one of the bills being touted by Breed and Jenkins.
Breed has been trying to address the fentanyl crisis since late 2021, but to little avail. San Francisco's Board of Supervisors remains in gridlock over many of these issues: Progressive stalwarts like Supervisor Dean Preston have sharply criticized the mayor and DA for their increased investment in policing, while former police spokesman Matt Dorsey celebrated Newsom’s plan to involve the CHP and National Guard, tweeting “THE CALVARY IS COMING!”
Still, local and state political leaders agree that San Francisco's fentanyl crisis is only worsening and needs serious intervention. Pelosi made a Friday afternoon plea for federal aid and asked the U.S. Department of Justice to designate San Francisco as a target city for Operation Overdrive, a drug trafficking and overdose initiative.
“My constituents have a strong sense of community and the overall safety in our City, but have expressed to me specific concern about the fentanyl crisis,” Pelosi wrote in a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland. “Time is of the essence. People are dying from fentanyl and violence.”
Operation Overdrive uses data to identify hot spots of drug-related violence and overdose deaths, in order to best determine how to allocate resources.
Breed and the state officials on Friday seemed intent on showing a united front, particularly noting how narratives about the city have shaped a negative perception of San Francisco nationally.
“Two truths can coexist at the same time: San Francisco’s violent crime rate is below comparably sized cities like Jacksonville and Fort Worth—and there is also more we must do to address public safety concerns, especially the fentanyl crisis,” Newsom said in a statement.