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San Francisco’s drug crisis crackdown makes more than 1,700 arrests in 6 months

San Francisco police have arrested 1,749 people since May in the crackdown operations aiming to shut down open-air drug markets in the Tenderloin and SoMa neighborhoods.
San Francisco police have arrested 1,749 people since May in the crackdown operations aiming to shut down open-air drug markets in the Tenderloin and SoMa neighborhoods. | Source: Loren Elliott for The Standard

San Francisco police have arrested 1,749 people since May in a crackdown aimed at shutting down open-air drug markets in the Tenderloin and SoMa neighborhoods, according to newly released city data.

From May 29 to Monday, the San Francisco Police Department recorded 788 arrests for drug use, 556 for drug dealing, and 408 classified as arrests for warrants or “other,” according to SFPD’s Drug Market Agency Coordination Center.

The department also said it seized 114 kilograms of drugs—including 61 kilos of fentanyl.

SFPD did not give The Standard any data on arrests and drug seizures for the six months before the crackdown.

In late May, the state, city and a broad spectrum of law enforcement agencies released the crackdown plans. Those plans included setting up a new command center—the Drug Market Agency Coordination Center, a physical in-person office in a secret Downtown location that brings various agencies together so they can disrupt open-air drug markets more effectively.

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The Standard has yet to hear back from the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office about how many cases for the crackdown-related arrests are still open.

Angela Chan, assistant chief attorney for the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, pushed back on the efficacy of the arrests, saying that arresting people for public drug use is more window dressing than a meaningful intervention for those with substance abuse issues.

“Street-level sellers are rapidly replaced because the demand remains,” Chan said. “Our communities would be safer if those who are arrested for selling drugs were given an opportunity to exit the exploitative drug trade and those who suffer from substance use disorders had low-barrier treatment options in the community.

In San Francisco, drug users are often enlisted by dealers to hold thousands of dollars worth of narcotics, cash and guns in exchange for relatively small quantities of drugs. Users told The Standard that dealers make them afraid to seek treatment because of possible retaliation if they try to escape their agreement.

Areas like Seventh and Market streets—20% of San Francisco’s reported drug crimes in 2023 were logged within a block of the intersection, one of the busier open-air markets at night—have some critics equating the city’s efforts to curb public drug use and sales to a shell game at best and theater at worst.

“The people being arrested for public drug use are being held in jail,” Chan said. “They experience grueling withdrawal for a few hours or days at a time, but they are largely not being connected to treatment.”

Pratibha Tekkey, staff member at the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, said the arrests have improved areas in the Tenderloin and mid-Market neighborhoods—but only during the day.

At night, however, it’s another story

“I would say there’s been a difference during the daytime for sure,” she said. “After 5 p.m. and 6 p.m., most of the ambassadors and nonprofit workers have gone home and we don’t have things drawing people into our businesses like Mission or Valencia.”

That void, she said, brings those who are using and vending to the Tenderloin.

“It is like a party scene until the wee hours of the morning, sometimes lasting until 6 a.m.,” she said.

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In early September, according to police, only two people had entered treatment out of 476 arrested by that time as part of the crackdown.

Police Chief Bill Scott acknowledged the efforts haven’t moved many people with addiction into treatment but said at a September San Francisco Police Commission meeting that the city lacks another method of removing people who are using drugs publicly.

“I know that’s a small number, but we started at zero,” Scott said at the meeting. “You’ll never hear me say that arresting folks will solve addiction, but these are still crimes.”

The uptick in arrests has increased the San Francisco jail population to over 1,000 people for the first time in years. In late October, the San Francisco Sheriff’s Office announced that the annex at the jail in San Bruno would reopen to accommodate the influx of detainees.