Brooke Jenkins hasn’t shied away from controversy.
After a high-profile resignation from the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office, she became a vocal critic of her former boss, Chesa Boudin, and led a campaign successfully removing him from office.
But now, after replacing the progressive icon as the city’s chief prosecutor, she’s trying to distance herself from the “distractions” of politics so she can focus more on the actual work her office is tasked to do.
With less than two months to go until Election Day, Jenkins is comfortably leading the polls over her opponents. But to show San Franciscans that her office will make the city safer and hold the criminals accountable—as she repeatedly has said in public events—remains her biggest challenge.
The Standard interviewed Jenkins recently as part of a series about the four people vying to become the city’s next DA. Below is a transcript of the conversation, edited for clarity and length.
You have been SF’s top prosecutor for two months. Does the job match your expectations? Or is it a lot crazier?
It’s certainly matching my expectation. It is very demanding, of course.
Our city was in crisis, and the DA’s Office was also in crisis after losing over 60 prosecutors and needing to overhaul the management team to bring in people who had prosecutorial experience.
So it’s demanding, but as I said, very much expected.
SF’s politics can be hyper aggressive. What’s the biggest lesson you have learned since being sworn in?
Unfortunately, there’s a faction of people that are more interested in politics than in the solutions. That is something I'm having to get used to.
I’m solution oriented. I want to make sure that we’re moving the city forward. I feel like that’s my obligation. And so it’s hard when people don’t want that and want to focus on politics.
Controversies around DA staffing have been consistent since you took over. Your first management staff meeting was secretly recorded, and later you fired a dozen attorneys and many more quit. Is the office still in flux or has it stabilized?
It’s much more stabilized.
I think the first step was making sure that we brought in experienced prosecutors to manage the office. The other thing is making sure that the lawyers can do their jobs effectively and not worry.
All of us understand that at the core of this work, it’s not political. We have victims who need justice. We need to be making sure that we equip offenders to rehabilitate and enter back into society. People are focused on the work. I think a lot of the politicization has left.
You were a volunteer spokesperson for the DA recall, and we had a story about you're also getting paid by three nonprofits, which have connections to the recall. Did your connection with the recall help you get hired by the three nonprofits?
I certainly … was referred to organizations by people that I met during the recall, but the two were not connected.
SF has a drug crisis and you have implemented several new policies, such as pursuing more jail time for accused drug dealers. How might we measure the success of these efforts?
What I’m hoping is that we no longer see 30 or 40 drug dealers out on the street on a single block anymore. That’s the goal. We are taking the steps to deter those who think that coming to sell drugs in San Francisco is without risk.
The (former) DA’s office had effectively decriminalized drug sales so they didn’t really see a consequence. We want to be making sure that we implement policies to deter that behavior because it’s really our communities of color, our migrant communities that are suffering from not only having these sellers out on the street, but it attracts those who have addiction, it creates violence and other sort of collateral consequences for that behavior.
And would you consider that a so-called war-on-drugs tactic?
I understand a lot of people want to use that term, but I think people have to understand that we are in a different place in history right now.
Never have we seen a drug as lethal as fentanyl on our streets. We are losing San Franciscans every day to overdose. And we have an obligation as a city and certainly as a DA’s office to make sure that we are keeping those who are suffering from addiction safe.
We can’t allow people to be on the street selling something that two milligrams is what it takes to kill someone.
You’re from Union City and you quit your prosecutor job and moved to San Francisco less than a year ago. What made you want to live here?
To be closer to the people that I was representing.
I’ve been representing people in this city for many years. It’s a city that I love, I’ve spent a lot of time in and my kids were born here. My husband has a lot of family in this city. So for me, it was to be on the ground with the people that I was fighting for.
You’ve been very vocal about keeping Asian American communities safe while also holding criminals accountable. Since you took office, have you filed hate crime charges in cases involving Asian victims?
We have charged Mrs. Ren’s case, the elderly woman who was brutally assaulted and robbed in her building. And we’ve charged Commissioner Chew’s (assault) case amongst others.
In neither case do we have hate crime charges.
I used to be the designated hate crimes prosecutor in this city so I know firsthand what it takes to charge and to prove a hate crime. It’s the one charge that requires proof of motive. You have to be able to go into the person’s head and demonstrate to a jury what they were thinking at the time that they committed another crime.
What I will say is that I recognize certainly that I believe there is racial targeting going on. And that is something that I think as the legal community, we have to figure out how we’re going to address. If people are specifically targeting a certain group of people because they believe that they have more valuable things on them or that they pose less of a physical threat in some way, we need to make sure that our laws allow us to prosecute those crimes or issues adequately.
So when it comes to prosecuting hate crimes, it’s easier said than done.
In a way, yes. I hate to put it that way though.
When you feel like you’ve been targeted because of what you look like, you want the charges to reflect what you feel happened. And it’s a struggle for us as prosecutors when we can’t offer that. We have to follow the law.
Unfortunately, the way that the law is set up, it requires proof of actual hate or animus. And that’s where it becomes difficult to prove what is going on in the mind of somebody. And if we don’t have statements or we don't have sometimes text messages or social media posts or something like that, it becomes very difficult to provide that proof.
Right or wrong, Chesa Boudin was blamed for a lot of the city’s biggest problems, even though many existed before he took office. Now that you’re DA, do you have a better appreciation of the pressure he was under?
Certainly. Even as a line prosecutor, you understand the pressure that you have to make people feel safe in this city.
I always acknowledged that this was a hard job. My issue was that we have to be doing everything in our power as the DA to curtail crime, to deter crime. My issue with him was that he was refusing to do things to deter criminal behavior and he was refusing to hold people accountable in many situations.
Mayor Breed appointed you DA, and there are reports saying a lot of her staff have been working very closely with your office. You also just made one of her former advisors your chief of staff. How do you ensure your independence from the mayor?
Because I’m my own person.
I’m thankful that the mayor, in the very beginning, offered support from her office. Quite frankly, when I walked into the DA’s office, Chesa as well as his chief of staff had approved extended leave for almost the entire executive management team.
The mayor has never tried to dictate the way that I do this job. I interviewed more than one person for that (chief of staff) position and I chose who I thought was capable. I would hope the mayor is supportive of the district attorney. We both are city leaders. We both have a city to serve. And I think what the city wants is for this.
I think those are … distractions from the reality.
I think the majority of the city wants to see not only the mayor’s office in line with me, but the Board of Supervisors, the police chief and everybody else. They want a safer city and it’s going to take everybody who's a city leader coming together to prioritize that.
Polls show you’re leading over three of your opponents. So if you win, how would you describe your success? Or how should the press hold you accountable?
You can judge whether or not you believe that I’m implementing policies that appear they would have a chance at success. Do we see any success? Am I listening? And am I doing everything in my power to give the constituents what they think they need?
I think those are the measuring sticks.
SF had a Black female DA before: Kamala Harris, who’s now the Vice President of the United States. How do you feel about people calling you Kamala Harris 2.0?
I guess in a way it’s flattering, of course, but I’m my own person. I just want to be seen as Brooke Jenkins.
I’ve thoroughly loved being a prosecutor, it’s what I feel I’m called to do. And so I hope people get to know me and see the way that I care for this city, that I truly care and want to be an advocate for our victims. And that I want to just try to make this system more fair for everybody involved, offenders included.
So hopefully, I’ll be Brooke 1.0.
Han Li can be reached at [email protected]