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Tenderloin drug suspects walk free because of judges, San Francisco DA says

District Attorney Brooke Jenkins speaks to members of the media prior to Thursday's town hall at the St. Anthony Foundation to address public safety in the Tenderloin. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

Residents of San Francisco’s troubled Tenderloin aired their concerns about brazen drug activity and crime in their neighborhood to a panel of the city’s leading law enforcement officials on Thursday night. 

And District Attorney Brooke Jenkins, who vowed to address the city’s visible drug markets after she took office last year, pointed the finger at other members of the city’s criminal justice system for allowing accused drug dealers to leave jail before trial. 

Jenkins said police officers are arresting people on suspicion of dealing drugs only to have them walk free despite her office’s pleas to detain them as they await trial.

“The police have to arrest the same person four times before the court will agree to hold them,” Jenkins said. “The judges are ignoring it … I think it’s going to take to the community of San Francisco getting more involved in overseeing what’s going on in these courtrooms.”

Hosted by the nonprofit St. Anthony’s and moderated by addiction-recovery activist Tom Wolf, the panel, called in response to a shooting that happened in July, featured Jenkins, police Chief Bill Scott and Sheriff Paul Miyamoto.

San Francisco police have made an increased number of drug-dealing-related arrests this year while Gov. Gavin Newsom deployed the California Highway Patrol and the National Guard to the Tenderloin in April. But residents say they’ve seen little progress in reining in drug use and related crimes. 

Many attendees at Thursday night’s forum—including a young girl who said she was afraid to go on walks around her house—asked what it would take to see progress in the neighborhood. 

“It's really frustrating because I go to school in Pacific Heights,” the girl said, “and my friends in Pacific Heights, they can go on walks.”

San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott speaks during Thursday's town hall hosted by District Attorney’s Office at the St. Anthony Foundation. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

Scott said his officers’ arrests often just push criminal activity to other parts of the neighborhood. And he acknowledged that to make progress on a complex issue such as addiction, law enforcement and social services need to work hand-in-hand.

In June, the city launched an interagency hub called the Drug Market Agency Coordination Center to bring together public health officials, police and the Department of Emergency Management to address the city’s drug crisis, which has taken over 400 lives this year and has devastated some local businesses. 

Mark Mazza, who works on the front lines of the drug and homelessness crisis for the city’s Department of Emergency Management, said the coordination center marks the first time those city divisions are working together and said he was optimistic that progress would be made through that kind of collaboration. 

“City departments working together is a new thing,” he said. “We’re not going to arrest our way out of this, and we’re not going to house our way out of this unless public health has a firm place in this plan.”

St. Anthony’s CEO Nils Behnke said he hoped for the panel to reconvene in three months to take account of any progress—or take public accountability for the lack thereof. 

David Sjostedt can be reached at