San Francisco mayor plans 'emergency response' for crime, drug deaths. Skeptical advocates say police can't fix the problem. – USA TODAY

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San Francisco’s mayor has turned to an emergency declaration and increased policing to combat a longstanding problem of drug overdoses and violent crime in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
The move follows national attention to crime in the city and has drawn fast criticism from some advocates, who say it is an ineffective quick fix that fails to address the city’s underlying problems.
The emergency declaration will allow the city to cut through red tape, speeding up the flow of police and social service resources to the Tenderloin neighborhood, Mayor London Breed said at a news conference this week alongside the city’s police chief.
“The situation in the Tenderloin is an emergency and it calls for an emergency response,” Breed said in a Friday statement.
The Tenderloin has long left city leaders divided over how to address the neighborhood’s high rates of homelessness and drug use.
The unusual move for a city famously synonymous with liberal ideals and tolerance comes as the state also seeks more than $300 million in extra law enforcement funding to combat retail theft.
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Breed said homelessness and drug use in the area has worsened during the pandemic with at least two people dying from overdoses each day, mostly from fentanyl. Last year, 712 people died of drug overdoses in the city.
In addition, a large proportion of an estimated 8,000 people in San Francisco experiencing homelessness are struggling with severe mental illness and addiction.
Breed’s plan also includes greater law enforcement response to illegal activity in the area and street clean-ups aimed at making the neighborhood safer. She said at a news conference that recent months have seen several “high-profile incidents of brazen robberies and car break-ins but also street behavior and criminal activity” that can no longer be tolerated.
“I know that San Francisco is a compassionate city,” she said. “We are a city that prides ourselves on second chances and rehabilitation. But we’re not a city where anything goes. Our compassion should not be mistaken for weakness and indifference.”
“We can’t keep doing the same thing and expecting a different result,” she added. “We need to be different, to act with urgency and to be aggressive in countering these problems.”
But the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness sharply criticized the mayor’s plan, saying stepped up policing is unlikely to fix the city’s problems and could make them worse.
In a lengthy response, the coalition said enforcement has not worked in the past to fix the inequity and systemic racism that fuels the region’s struggles with drugs and crime.
“The tried and failed strategy of addressing socioeconomic problems with punishment will only lead to more harm and suffering on our streets, while the Mayor stalls on implementing the evidence-based solutions that community members have fought hard for,” the coalition said in a Friday statement.
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The coalition said a “misleading flood of media hysteria around crime in San Francisco” is leading officials to increase police presence in the area.
Because police “have limited tools to address socioeconomic issues,” the coalition says the increased police presence will lead to the displacement of unhoused people and sweeps of homeless encampments.
The coalition favors using trained teams of unarmed civilians and improving access to mental health systems in the community. Similar efforts in the state involving unarmed teams of community members include Sacramento’s Advance Peace initiative. A University of California, Berkeley analysis showed the group’s approach has been effective in peacefully mediating conflicts.
Thousands of unhoused people are getting forced out of encampments in parks and business districts nationwide as homeless populations skyrocket. While the number of cities with anti-camping laws has risen by at least 50% since 2016, according to a report in 2019 by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, advocates say criminalizing homelessness is not a solution.
“Simply put, expanding policing does nothing to make unhoused people safer, and only contributes to their instability and poor public health outcomes,” the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness said.
In a Medium article, Breed said the city was committed to addressing systemic inequality, but the emergency response is now needed.
“To be clear, public safety also means confronting the underlying systemic problems that plague our society — such as the need for housing, health care and equity,” she wrote. “We will keep working on those issues, too. But we need a safer San Francisco, and we need it now.”
Breed told reporters this week that she recognizes the plan will make a lot of people uncomfortable.
“Folks can say what they want about this going back on your word, this and that, but at the end of the day the people in this community are not safe,” she said. “And it is not fair and it’s not right.”
Contributing: The Associated Press
Contact News Now Reporter Christine Fernando at or follow her on Twitter at @christinetfern.


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