A new effort to free S.F.’s Tenderloin from dealers
San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera is using a novel legal approach to try to clean up openair drug dealing on the Tenderloin’s sidewalks, suing 28 alleged dealers in a bid to impose civil fines and arrest if they so much as enter the neighborhood.
The move, essentially a restraining order for drug pushers, comes as dealing in the Tenderloin has grown more prolific — and the consequences more deadly. The Department of Public Health last month released statistics showing 441 people died across the city in 2019 of drug overdoses, a stunning 70% increase from the previous year.
Many of the drugs dealt out in the Tenderloin are laced with fentanyl, which is driving the spike in deaths. Already this year, 81 people
have died of overdoses in the Tenderloin.
Mostly, City Hall has failed to marshal a response even remotely commensurate with these devastating numbers. Many of the dealers selling the deadly products have been arrested and released with few real consequences, returning repeatedly to the same corners to commit the same crimes.
Herrera’s move, which will need Superior Court approval, comes weeks after this column featured moms and grandmothers in the Tenderloin who say they sometimes feel trapped in their little apartments because of the crush of dealers outside their doors — and that their children recognize dealing at sadly early ages.
“Everyone can agree that what is going on in the Tenderloin is unacceptable, and we as a city need to work collectively to address what is an unfortunately terrible threat to the families and children living there,” Herrera said in an interview Wednesday. “We all have a responsibility to step up and alleviate the crisis.”
Herrera — who was first elected city attorney in 2001 — readily admits his approach isn’t a silver bullet, that the city needs to offer far more drug and mental health treatment, and that the narcotics suppliers need to be taken down. Still, his approach shows somebody in city government is thinking creatively and acting decisively, a rarity these days.
Herrera will seek civil injunctions against 28 people who’ve been arrested at least twice in the past 18 months, including at least once in the past nine months. Both arrests must have led to criminal charges or a motion to revoke probation. The drugs involved must have been fentanyl, heroin, cocaine or methamphetamine.
Herrera’s office worked closely with the San Francisco Police Department to create the list of 28 people — 24 men and four women. None of the defendants live in the Tenderloin, Herrera said. All but one live outside San Francisco, traveling from Oakland, Hayward, San Jose, Suisun City and elsewhere. The sole San Francisco resident lives in the Sunset District.
Herrera wants to prevent the 28 people from entering a 50block area in the historic Tenderloin and part of the nearby South of Market neighborhood. If caught there, they could face arrest for violating a court order and seizure of any drugs and paraphernalia on them. Herrera’s office could levy a fine of $6,000 per violation, but criminal consequences would be in the hands of District Attorney Chesa Boudin.
And that’s where the plan could fall down.
Boudin was not involved in the crafting of Herrera’s strategy and has said repeatedly he won’t replicate the failed war on drugs by focusing on smallscale, streetlevel dealers. Instead, he has called for focusing on the suppliers and expanding drug treatment. He also wants to create a special court for the dealers he says are trafficked from Honduras and are victims themselves.
Boudin and Public Defender Mano Raju declined to comment.
It’s also unclear whether Herrera’s effort can work when a separate operation in August 2019 by the U.S. Attorney’s Office to arrest 32 drug dealers in the Tenderloin hasn’t markedly changed the dynamics in the neighborhood. In fact, they’ve only gotten worse.
San Francisco police have also continued to arrest dealers. Police Chief Bill Scott, who support’s Herrera’s effort, said a recent 90day narcotics operation in the Tenderloin resulted in the arrests of 267 people.
“By working together with our partners in the city attorney’s office and our other law enforcement partners, we can help make our city a safer place,” he said in a statement.
Herrera’s move could also face pushback from civil rights groups who fought his nowexpired civil gang injunctions, which started in 2006 and prohibited named gang members from associating with other suspected members inside designated neighborhood “safety zones.” In those cases, the defendants also couldn’t flash gang signs, loiter or paint graffiti.
The injunctions coincided with a drop in gang killings and homicides overall, but critics said they contributed to police harassment and racial profiling.
Herrera’s office has taken pains to distinguish this effort. Unlike in the gang injunctions, the 28 people prohibited from entering the Tenderloin don’t live there. Herrera’s office said it didn’t look at the people’s racial demographics and the sole criterion was a pattern of criminal misconduct.
Mayor London Breed supports Herrera’s plan, calling the openair dealing “simply unacceptable.”
“Our police officers make arrests, but then we see those same people dealing drugs out on the street again and again,” Breed said in a statement. “We need to try new approaches to break this cycle, and I appreciate that City Attorney Dennis Herrera is putting this solution forward . ... This neighborhood deserves better, and our city needs to do better.”
She added that she wants to see more investment in drug treatment and the opening of a longdiscussed safe injection site where people can legally consume drugs under supervision. The city’s new budget includes money for a new crisis response team to assist those experiencing mental health or drugrelated emergencies on the street.
Dina Mendoza, program manager for La Voz Latina, a resource center for Latino residents of the Tenderloin, said Herrera’s plan sounds like a good one.
“We need more of an aggressive approach,” she said of drug dealers. “We’ll see if this deters them or makes them rethink wanting to come to the Tenderloin.”
She said she hears regularly from mothers in the neighborhood that they must choose between staying home or pushing their way through sidewalks crowded with drug dealers and people buying their products. She said many mothers have told her about being catcalled and harassed by dealers, and their daughters sometimes face even worse harassment.
“The Tenderloin is all they can afford, and it’s very hard on them, very difficult to see this in the streets and have their kids exposed to it,” Mendoza said. “Parents feel like they’re invisible, and nobody’s really listening to them.”
Fernando Pujals, senior director of the Tenderloin Community Benefit District, said there’s “persistent trauma” around the Tenderloin’s openair drug markets — including among families who live in isolation because they’re afraid to leave and walk through the mess.
“It’s clear that whatever mechanisms are in place to mitigate those impacts have not worked,” he said. “I would welcome some different thinking around it.”
Different thinking in San Francisco? It’s about time.
Fentanyl is an increasing plague and a deadly hazard on the streets of the Tenderloin.
The Tenderloin streets are crowded on an April day during shelterinplace. Social distancing can be difficult or even impossible for homeless and lowincome people.