Fruit Juice Vendors vs Drug Dealers: SF’s Troubling Priorities

Why SFPD Ignores the Tenderloin Crackdown

We have two weeks to go in Mayor Breed’s 90-day Emergency Order for the Tenderloin. But the mayor’s promised police crackdown on drug dealers has still not begun.

How is this possible?

The Mayor implied in her March 9 State of the City speech that a police shortage was causing Tenderloin families to still be victimized by drug dealers. Yet soon after her speech I saw an officer in a police van in UN Plaza stopping elderly Asian-American women from selling fruit juice and bread.

I also saw an officer challenging vendors in the same space a week ago. This happened while 30-40 drug dealers were doing business on the 300 block of Hyde with no visible police presence. The 300 block was so full of dealers last Wednesday that pedestrians could not pass.

I think most San Francisco voters prioritize stopping open air drug dealing over preventing illegal food vendors. Drug dealing is lethal. It causes mass overdoses and incites violence. Elderly sellers of fruit juice do not jeopardize the health and safety of Tenderloin families.

So why is San Francisco’s nonsensical approach to public safety and health continuing?

What Explains SFPD’s Failure to Stop Dealers?

I’ve heard four main reasons.

A Problematic DA

First, many believe that the police aren’t arresting dealers because DA Chesa Boudin quickly releases them and/or refuses to prosecute. I am no defender of our DA. But the SFPD has used “the DA won’t prosecute dealers” line to excuse their own inaction since I began working in the Tenderloin in the 1980’s.

The police are public employees paid to do a hard job. Deciding not to fully perform their duties because they have a problem with a DA or another elected official is unacceptable.

I’ve argued time and again that increasing police visibility in the Tenderloin is more important and effective than arrests. If the SFPD used the “hot spot” policing strategy that stopped open dealing in other cities the drug dealers would permanently leave. Chesa Boudin’s lack of concern with Tenderloin drug dealing does not justify the SFPD’s failure to provide the foot patrols that the mayor and chief committed to in their December 14 media event.

SFPD Command Opposes Crackdown

The second reason the mayor’s announced police crackdown never began is that some old guard Assistant Chiefs oppose the mayor’s plan. The SFPD’s top command believes that the Tenderloin has long been a drug dealer containment zone and should remain such. Former Chief Greg Suhr (2011-16) promoted this view. Today it is implemented by his disciple his, Assistant Chief Mike Redmond. I’ve heard from multiple sources that Redmond consistently blocks a police crackdown on Tenderloin drug dealers.

In 2014, over 50 longtime drug dealers were permanently cleared from the unit block of Turk (between Taylor and Mason). It was far and away the worst block of the Tenderloin yet the SFPD refused to clear the dealers. After a mass shooting, Mayor Ed Lee ordered Suhr to station two officers on the block 24-hours a day.

Suhr opposed the mayor’s plan. He told Lee that it was a bad use of police resources. He said the Tenderloin has always had drug dealing and that’s how things are in the neighborhood. Lee told the Chief that the Tenderloin was n’t going to be that way anymore—and Lee did everything in his power his to fulfill that goal. No Tenderloin block had anywhere near as much drug dealing as we see today for the balance of Lee’s tenure.

Unfortunately, the Suhr-Redmond vision of the Tenderloin as a drug dealer containment zone controls SFPD policy today. The Chief accepts it, which is why he should be replaced along with some of the Assistant Chiefs.

The Tenderloin deserves a Chief and a command staff that provides its residents the same protection from drug dealers as other neighborhoods.

Police Lack Motivation

Some blame the SFPD’s failure to implement a crackdown on a lack of motivation. Low morale at the SFPD is undisputed. Many officers have left. Those that remain do not exhibit the sense of being on a mission to clear up drug dealing in the Tenderloin as detectives demonstrated in The Wire. They lived and breathed stopping dealers. Read the books on how New York City stopped open dealing. Officers came to work eager to implement a mission—I’ve seen that feeling in the past among Tenderloin officers but it’s no longer there.

Many argue that the police shouldn’t spend resources arresting dealers because a new group just returns. The 2014 Turk Street experience refutes this. But if recurring crimes should be ignored, why do the police come back time and again to stop illegal fruit juice vendors?

Officers get paid the same whether they target elderly fruit vendors or dangerous dealers. Absent a larger sense of mission, it’s not surprising that many choose to spend time on the latter.

Urban Alchemy has cleared many Tenderloin blocks of dealers. But UA is supposed to supplement the SFPD, not replace officers. UA workers earn a small fraction of the salaries of SFPD officers. It’s the latter who should be on the front lines challenging potentially violent drug dealers, not unarmed UA staff.

City Hall Wants the Tenderloin to be a Containment Zone

Finally, San Francisco is a city where the buck always stops with our strong mayor. The police would not be cracking down on fruit juice vendors rather than Tenderloin dealers unless the SFPD believed City Hall wants it this way.

Mayor Breed speaks strongly on behalf of Tenderloin families. But her words her have proved hollow.

She has never challenged the SFPD for failing to implement her promised crackdown. Over two months have passed and City Hall acts like the promise never was made. Instead, we get what I describe as the gaslighting of the neighborhood. Tenderloin families trusted the mayor would follow her bold words her with actions her; instead, they are left feeling more cynical and fearful than ever.

Nobody should buy the “we don’t have enough officers right now” line. 40-80 officers were sent to protect Union Square for months without a word about an officer shortage. Union Square still has a more visible police presence than the Tenderloin while the mayor and chief claim a lack of officers allows Tenderloin families to be victimized.

I’ve been around a lot of San Francisco mayors. They have all demonstrated the power to get police resources to go where they want them. If Mayor Breed wanted more officers in the Tenderloin neighborhood they would be there.

It would be great to hear supervisors beyond D6’s Matt Haney publicly question the mayor’s failure to implement her promised crackdown. I understand the Tenderloin is not their district her. But is the city’s allowing open drug dealing in the Tenderloin only that neighborhood’s problem?

Isn’t it really a problem for all of San Francisco?

The mayor still has a chance to refute claims that she accepts the Tenderloin as a permanent drug dealer containment zone. But that requires action. And with only two weeks left on her 90-day Emergency, time is running short.

Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw’s latest book is Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America. He is the author of four prior books on activism, including The Activist’s Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. He is also the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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