After Black Lives Matter protesters last year demanded that cities “Defund the Police,” San Francisco Mayor London Breed held a press conference to announce that her city would be one of the first to do exactly that. Breed announced $120 million in cuts to the budgets of both San Francisco’s police and sheriff’s departments. A spokesperson for the police officers’ union warned the cuts “could impact our ability to respond to emergencies,” but the police chief assured the public that the cuts “will not diminish our ability to provide essential services.”
Yesterday, Breed reversed herself in dramatic fashion, announcing that she was making an emergency request to the city’s Board of Supervisors for more money for the police to support a crackdown on crime, including open air drug dealing, car break-ins, and retail theft. The plan contains much of what the California Peace Coalition, which Environmental Progress and I cofounded last spring, has been demanding, including in a series of protests by parents of homeless addicts, parents of children killed by fentanyl, and recovering addicts.
San Francisco Mayor Breed and other San Francisco politicians have for years promised to crack down on drug dealing and crime, and things have only grown worse over, so skepticism is merited. Already, progressives in San Francisco have denounced Mayor Breed’s plan, which she announced with the support of just two members of the city’s 11 Board of Supervisors, and without the apparent support of the city’s District Attorney.
But there’s good reason for hope. Breed’s plan lays out big goals and makes very specific promises, including more funding for police. There will be a recall election next June of San Francisco’s District Attorney Chesa Boudin which many political experts believe will succeed. And the progressive Supervisor who represents the Tenderloin, the neighborhood with most of city’s open drug scene, is running for state assembly, creating a leadership vacuum and opportunity for Breed.
More importantly, Breed’s speech has the potential to change the conversation about crime. Breed explicitly embraced “tough love,” which is a very different philosophy from Woke victimology, which divides the world into victims and oppressors and demands that victims, a category that includes street addicts and criminals, only be given things, from cash and clean needles to their own apartment with butler service, and not be held accountable for their actions.
“I’m proud this city believes in giving people second chances,” said Breed. “Nevertheless, we also need there to be accountability when someone does break the law…Our compassion cannot be mistaken for weakness or indifference…. I was raised by my grandmother to believe in ‘tough love,’ in keeping your house in order, and we need that, now more than ever.”
Breed punctuated her emotional speech with an explicative. “It is time for the reign of criminals to end,” she said. “And it comes to an end when are more aggressive with law enforcement and less tolerant of all the bulls**t that has destroyed our city.”
Why is that? What explains Breed’s 180 degree reversal in less than 18 months? And what will determine whether she keeps her promise?
Murder, Looting, and Drug Deaths
The main reason for Breed’s turnabout is skyrocketing crime. A report released yesterday by San Francisco’s Public Policy Institute of California concluded that homicides increased in Los Angeles, Oakland, San Diego, and San Francisco by 17% in 2021. Property crimes in those four cities rose 7% between 2020 and 2021, reaching 25,000 total in October. Two-thirds of increase is due to larcenies, mainly car break-ins (by 21%) and vehicle thefts (by 10%).
PPIC stresses that property and violent crimes are lower than historic levels, but business leaders and residents have told me for two years that they often do not report many crimes. And the rate of arrest has declined significantly for many crimes. In 2019, 40% of all shoplifting reports resulted in arrest; in 2021, only 19% did. San Francisco’s progressive D.A. charged just 46% of theft arrests, a 16 point decline since he took office in 2020, and charged just 35% of petty theft arrests, a 23 point decline from two years ago.
In November, San Francisco was the first of several progressive cities hit by smash-and-grab mobs of thieves, sometimes as many as 80 in a group. Video from the San Francisco looting of Louis Vuitton shows criminals walking casually out of the store, goods in hand. In response, many of San Francisco’s luxury stores in its Union Square shopping district boarded up their windows, making the area resemble a blighted neighborhood in Detroit, and embarrassing city leaders.
Meanwhile, San Francisco’s open drug scene contributed to three times more deaths from illicit drugs than covid last year, and has degraded the low-income historically black Tenderloin neighborhood. San Francisco could shut the open drug scene down like European cities did but has instead refused to mandate proven medical treatment to drug addicts. San Francisco’s progressive leaders have effectively been overseeing a radical social experiment, one that killed more African Americans last year alone than the entire Tuskegee syphilis experiment killed over 40 years.
Breed has been personally impacted by addiction and crime. Both Breed’s sister and brother struggled with addiction while growing up in public housing in San Francisco. Her sister died of a drug overdose and her brother is in prison for armed robbery. “I am not for playing games with my life when it comes to politics,” she told an interviewer. “I’ve been in that community, working in the trenches, dealing with the public safety issues, dealing with those things because my people are the ones getting left behind at the end of the day.”
But Breed also had to be pushed. In May, I helped Jacqui Berlinn, a mother of a homeless fentanyl addict, organize the first-ever protest of open drug dealing in the Tenderloin, which generated national and local headlines and local TV coverage.
A few months later, Berlinn and I co-founded, with parents of children killed by fentanyl, recovering addicts, and community leaders, a new state-wide group, the California Peace Coalition, to demand the enforcement of laws against open drug dealing, mandatory treatment for addicts who break the law, and a state takeover of psychiatric and addiction care.
Then, in early November, over 200 mostly poor and working class people in the Tenderloin protested a 161% increase in violence in the neighborhood between 2020 and 2021, and open drug dealing, in a march on City Hall. Part of their motivation was a brutal attack on an 11-year-old girl while she was walking to school. The day before, a 61-year-old man was shot while sitting in a donut shop. Two weeks later, a half a dozen gunmen fired 30 and 40 rounds at each other, sending bystanders running in chaos.
Breed put their voices at the heart of her announcement. “Last week, I met with a group of families from the TL [Tenderloin],” she wrote. “I was told about drug dealers threatening grandmothers. About mid-day shootings near a park where a single mother brings her toddler after school. About assaults on the street…. We need to take back our Tenderloin.”
The response to Breed’s remarks from parents and residents was overwhelmingly positive. “I can’t express how happy this makes me,” tweeted Berlinn. Tom Wolff, a formerly homeless drug addict who is on the city’s Drug Dealing Task Force, said, “I’m really happy to hear the mayor take a tougher approach on this. We can’t arrest our way out of everything, but there needs to be some target specific enforcement.”
Michelle Tandler, a San Francisco native whose photos of boarded up Union Square stores went viral, said, “I’ve been observing Mayor Breed for many years now and have to say, I think this was her greatest speech to-date. Mayor Breed took a stand for what is right. I haven’t seen her this impassioned since her inauguration a few years back.”
Seizing the Momentum
Breed’s speech puts pressure on progressive San Francisco supervisors and the District Attorney to shut down the open drug scene in the Tenderloin.
When he ran for office in 2018, San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin called “open-air drug use and drug sales… technically victimless crimes.” When Boudin announced that he was not going to prosecute street-level drug dealers he said it was because they are “themselves [are] victims of human trafficking.”
But, after the looting of Louis Vuitton, Boudin struck a more tough-on-crime tone. “I’m outraged by the looting in Union Square last night” Boudin tweeted. “We are seeing similar crimes across the country. I have a simple message: don’t bring that noise to our City.”
But standing up for luxury stores is different from shutting down open drug scenes. “Boudin made a very strong statement after the [flash mob] theft of Louis Vuitton,” said Stanford addiction specialist Keith Humphreys. “But I want a DA who is the most worried about the poorest residents and less about Louis Vuitton.”
Other politicians are responding to the crime wave. California Attorney General Rob Bonta promised “more resources” for investigating retail theft. And the Mayor of Oakland, which will have record homicides this year, has demanded more funding for the police, and asked Gov. Gavin Newsom to finally implement technology that would allow police to read license plates on state highways to catch criminals.
Former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer said he viewed Breed’s announcement as vindication for what he has been advocating. “Californians are tolerant, but we don’t tolerate brazen crime and dangerous streets,” he said. ”It should not even be a question as to whether or not the open drug markets should be shut down — I’ve been saying for years: if you let people live and do drugs on the streets, you’re condemning them to die on the streets. I enforced this as Mayor of San Diego and it must be enforced throughout California.”
Former Sacramento District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert, a former Republican running for California Attorney General as an independent, praised Breed and used her announcement to attack Attorney General Bonta as soft-on-crime. “Bravo to London Breed,” Schubert tweeted, “and her commitment to cracking down on crime and open air drug usage. Breed has laid out common sense strategies that Rob Bonta clearly disagrees with. San Franciscans deserve better than an Attorney General who won’t listen to local officials about common sense public safety measures.”
Breed’s announcement come days after former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter attacked progressive District Attorney Larry Krasner for dismissing the city’s record high homicides, and several weeks after Seattle voters, of whom less than 10 percent voted for Donald Trump in 2020, elected a Republican as the city’s State Attorney in response to rising crime. “I don’t think we can overestimate the influence of the city of Seattle voting 8% for Donald Trump one year ago and voting 55% for a Republican city attorney who had a law and order platform in this year’s election,” said Humphreys.
In the end, shutting down the city’s open drug scenes is crucial to ending drug deaths and the chaos that plagues the city. “It is an entirely fixable problem,” said Humphreys, “as many cities have shown. There will still be drug use and addiction in San Francisco. But harm reduction requires closing down open air drug scenes. Every city in America has drug problems. They do not all have a drug scene like San Francisco.”
Humphreys emphasized, as did the authors of a study of how five European cities closed open drug scenes, that coordination between homeless service providers and police officers is crucial. The head of one of them, Urban Alchemy, Lena Miller, said, in response to Breed’s announcement, “We are relieved. The problem wasn’t created overnight and solving it will take time. But we very happy and looking forward to everyone coming off the sidelines to solve this.”
For Humphreys, citing the European model, “Harm reduction is not a fantasy about a drug-free society, which we’re never going to have. It’s trying to minimize the damage that drugs do. Closing down open drug markets is going to have huge gains for people, particularly in the Tenderloin, but more broadly in the city.”
Breed announcement may help change how Americans think about drugs. While it may not be possible to halt drug from coming into the U.S., it is possible to shut down open drug scenes, and mandate treatment for those who need it.
“The public is wanting some action here and she’s going to try to deliver it,” said Humphreys. “I think her announcement will resonate in some of these other cities, too, and give courage. I admire the mayor for taking a political risk on behalf of the least powerful people in the city.”