San Francisco’s latest Tenderloin drug crime crackdown is doomed to fail. Here’s why

  • Gil Duran Aug 14, 2022

“Another two to three years, I do think we’ll see some things turn around down here,” said Capt. George Kowalski, a 29-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department, discussing the latest crackdown on drugs and crime in the Tenderloin.

The plan: Flood the zone with police and make as many arrests necessary to end the open-air drug scenes. Kowalski described it as a block-by-block war, with 60 officers — more cops per square foot than any other neighborhood — dedicated to the task.

The year: 1992. The task: Fix the Tenderloin. The result: 30 years later, things are worse than ever thanks to fentanyl, methamphetamine and poverty. The crackdown, which included putting a new police station in the neighborhood, did not achieve a turnaround. Today, drug dealers ply their trade down the block.

Yet Mayor London Breed and District Attorney Brooke Jenkins are once again pushing the same failed strategy. Their approach has its foundation in two big lies. Lie #1: Crime in the Tenderloin became rampant because of District Attorney Chesa Boudin. Lie #2: Crackdowns can fix the problem.

A tour of The Examiner archive reveals that the Tenderloin had established its reputation as a bastion of flagrant crime and vice for decades. And countless police crackdowns — spanning two centuries and targeting everything from gambling to gay bars to prostitution to drugs — have failed to improve things.

I found Kowalksi’s quote in a story headlined “Tenderloin: Deeper into the nightmare.” Except for the fact that people were smoking crack instead of fentanyl in 1992, it could have been written today. Columnist Stephanie Salter detailed all the same problems police are struggling with in 2022.

For example, Kowalski complained that most of those arrested for open-air drug sales quickly ended up back on the streets. Salter wrote that a “perennially overcrowded jail” and an “understaffed district attorney’s office” meant that an arrest was little more than a “two-day inconvenience for many of the accused criminals.”

“Crack cocaine is smoked openly,” she wrote. “Pills and aluminum foil packets of heroin and cocaine are exchanged for wads of cash.”

The 1992 crackdown was neither the first nor the last. During his 1975 campaign, future Mayor George Moscone called the Tenderloin a “zone of terror,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle, and promised “to crack down on ‘punks’ and ‘muggers.’”

In 1979, Mayor Dianne Feinstein crowed about a “dramatic” 29% reduction in Tenderloin crime between April and June, ostensibly the result of aggressive policing. But the boast proved short-lived when The Examiner learned that serious crime had increased by 25% during the month of July.

“You’ve bet we’ve got drug problems,” one man told Feinstein during a Tenderloin tour.

“We’re going to help you get rid of it,” said SFPD Chief Charles Gain.

“She’s hitting her head against a concrete wall down here,” said George Anagnostou, a grocer at Jones and Turk.

In 1981, the Guardian Angels formed a local branch to discourage crime in the neighborhood. In 1985, a group of 350 desperate Tenderloin residents marched to demand change.

“Drug peddling and prostitution are the area’s largest concerns,” wrote The Examiner. “The San Francisco Police Department assigns more foot patrol officers to the Tenderloin than to any other area in The City and has recently increased the number of arrests by 300 percent.”

“The streets of the Tenderloin are our living room,” said Leroy Looper, who helped organize the march. “People live in the streets, and things happen there like no other place in The City. Crime is more visible to us, and we need to begin to control it.”

By 1989, ex-Mayor Feinstein was lamenting The City’s inability to incarcerate more people.

“The present jails are filled to capacity, and the courts threaten contempt proceedings if there is overcrowding,” wrote Feinstein at the end of a decade during which California’s prison population increased by 263%. “Without cells, prisoners are back on the streets within hours of their arrests. For the dope dealer and the armed hoodlums, there is simply no substitute for time in jail.”

Tenderloin dealers persevered through three separate mayoral administrations in the ‘90s, despite tough DAs, SFPD optimism and big plans to revive what a 1994 Gannett story described as a “decaying” and “seedy” Tenderloin.

“The public has heard a lot of this before,” said one observer in a story headlined “Tenderloin set for comeback.” “Every new mayor, including this one, establishes a mayor’s task force on the Tenderloin.”

Mayor Willie Brown, elected in 1996, also fell short of his goal to transform the neighborhood with a new park and an aggressive sidewalk cleaning program.

“We’re building a new image for the Tenderloin,” he said in 1998. “We want the Tenderloin to be known as a family-friendly place.”

Fast forward to 2007, which found Mayor Gavin Newsom launching yet another round of drug busts.

“An overwhelming number of alleged drug dealers arrested during a recent six-day sweep of San Francisco came from out of town,” wrote The Examiner on Oct. 23, 2007.

“The bottom line is that we have far too many people involved in the open market of drug sales in the Tenderloin,” declared DA Kamala Harris.

But San Francisco had a bigger problem back then: a record high of 100 murders.

“You want to reduce crime in this country, by 70 percent, overnight, end this war on drugs,” said Newsom, when questioned about the homicide rate.

Another crackdown followed in 2008, this one with a focus on quality-of-life crimes. Police credited it with reducing violent crime, but drug sales continued unabated.

“This is the largest open-air pharmacy in The City, and continues to be,” police commissioner Theresa Sparks told The Examiner in January 2009.

That year’s crackdown, under SFPD Chief George Gascón, emphasized felony charges and enhanced penalties for dealing drugs near schools. It stuffed the jail, clogged the courts and, ultimately, failed.

“What people who have been in San Francisco for a long time forget is that this has been this way for generations, and we have tried to arrest our way out of that — with complete failure,” said Gascón in a recent interview with the Davis Vanguard.

“The new DA says they will start arresting people there,” said Gascón, who also served as DA here. “She will end up in the same place. You know the reason why, because until you attend to the social issues and the lack of housing and the lack of treatment, you can arrest people today and they will be cycling in and out. You can arrest drug dealers and there will be another group of young kids who will come in the next day to sell drugs because the demand is high.”

The Tenderloin has vexed generations of California’s best politicians. If Feinstein, Brown, Newsom and Harris couldn’t fix it with crackdowns, what makes anyone think rank amateurs like Breed and Jenkins will have better luck?

But crackdowns aren’t intended to solve the problem. They’re a short-term political strategy to placate the public by sweeping the problem around in circles. After all, this is Breed’s second big Tenderloin crackdown this year. The last one earned plenty of press, but nothing changed.

So, here we go again: Expecting different results from the same failed strategy, doomed to repeat the cycle of insanity because we refuse to learn from the past. The only thing more depressing than the fact that our politicians keep trying to fight the racist, classist Drug War is the fact that we enable such idiocy in the first place.

Perhaps one day we’ll have the courage and wisdom to address the issue honestly. Until then, look at the bright side: Another two to three years … we’ll see some things turn around down here.

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