San Francisco Chronicle
Preston offers his own public safety plan
Supervisor Dean Preston has unveiled a proposal to pump $10 million into non-police interventions for drug dealing and public safety in the Tenderloin, a pushback against Mayor London Breed’s campaign for police overtime spending.
Preston confirmed Tuesday that he will not vote for Breed’s budget supplemental next week. Seven supervisors have said they will support it, but some have been critical of the $27.6 million she wants for police, saying the department needs to rein in spending and become more efficient. Three supervisors have not decided or disclosed their vote yet. The spending needs eight votes to pass.
Preston instead on Tuesday is introducing a $10 million emergency budget supplemental for more community ambassadors, small business grants for security, and a street level intervention team to deter and offer alternatives to drug dealing in the Tenderloin, which he represents as part of District Five.
His push follows Breed’s contention last month that the police supplemental is needed to keep the same officer staffing levels on the street through the end of the fiscal year. The department projects it will overspend its overtime budget this year by three times — up to $81 million out of a $714 million total budget — to maintain staffing as the department fails to fill vacant officer positions and run special initiatives including deterring retail theft in Union Square over the holidays and drug dealing in the Tenderloin currently.
Preston on Tuesday said that he hears from constituents concerned about drug dealing and the associated violence blocking sidewalks and that he pitched his proposal as part of the solution.
“There are a bunch of things we could and should be doing that could improve public safety in the Tenderloin,” Preston said. “My hope is that regardless of where people land around the issue of police funding and police presence, and there’s a range of views on that … that the three items we’ve identified can actually be a point of unity and agreement.”
Preston’s office said Supervisors Shamann Walton and Hillary Ronen are supporting the Tenderloin budget supplemental. But while the police overtime supplemental is citywide, Preston’s proposal is only focused on the Tenderloin. It’s unclear how other supervisors will feel about the proposal. Preston’s office painted its funding request as not an either/or with police funding.
The ideological and budgetary battle over solutions to crime and street conditions has set apart Breed and Preston since the mayor began her push in December 2021 to get more cops on the streets and crack down on openair drug use and dealing in the Tenderloin.
Preston, who started representing the Tenderloin after redistricting last spring, and his supporters argue that the reliance on law enforcement is a repeat of the failed War on Drugs and demand other solutions. Breed and her allies, who have also supported alternatives to address challenges on the streets, say that alternatives such as ambassadors can only do so much to address violence and drug dealing, and that more police are needed.
The issue has divided the city, although the political winds shifted over the past year toward a tougher stance. Though violent and property crime declined during the pandemic, alarm about public safety skyrocketed, leading to the recall of former progressive District Attorney Chesa Boudin and the election of recall supporter District Attorney Brooke Jenkins. Jenkins has pledged to prosecute fentanyl dealers in the Tenderloin as one of her top priorities, a stance Preston has criticized.
Breed, who appointed Jenkins to the position before the district attorney was elected, has leaned into support for the police. The mayor appears to be tying her political future to delivering on public safety: She emailed her 2024 re-election campaign list on Monday to urge supporters to contact supervisors to support the police funding.
In response to a question about whether the mayor would support Preston’s proposals, her office said in a statement Tuesday that the mayor has met with small business owners and community leaders in the Tenderloin over the past several months.
“Their feedback has consistently been that they want police to respond to the immediate threats the neighborhood faces around open-air drug dealing and use, rampant theft, and associated violence,” the office said.
Breed already invested heavily in non-police responses in the Tenderloin during and after a three-month state of emergency from December 2021 to March 2022, including homeless outreach, street cleaning, ambassadors and $3.5 million in grants to community organizations, in addition to recently putting more officers on overtime to tackle drug dealing.
Preston acknowledged investments in alternatives, but said more is needed.
His new proposal calls for three components. First, it would award $3 million in grants — up to $10,000 for each small business — to improve gates, cameras, staffing and other security measures. Second, it would spend $4 million on more community ambassadors in parts of the Tenderloin and Lower Polk that don’t have them currently. The Board of Supervisors is currently considering a city proposal to expand ambassadors, but not in those areas.
Breed’s office wants to maintain and eventually expand retired police officer ambassadors, but said Tuesday that any discussions about expanding community ambassadors should be conducted during the upcoming budget process.
Third, Preston wants to give $3 million to the Public Health Department to create a street dealing intervention team, similar to the city’s street violence intervention program that responds to shootings and tries to prevent violence. That team is run by the health department and the Mayor’s Office of Violence Prevention Services. Preston is proposing the new team would engage with people who are dealing, prevent violence, connect dealers who are addicted to treatment and transition people off the streets, possibly through alternative employment.
Preston’s office and the health department have not discussed the proposal yet.
The city’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development said Tuesday that it previously sent staff to the streets of the Tenderloin in 2018, 2019 and 2020 to conduct bilingual outreach and hand out flyers offering access to its paid job training programs and centers where people could get entry-level employment in retail, construction, hospitality and more. The department said it found little to interest in the offers.
In contrast, some organizations said they are already doing this work successfully. Longtime former Tenderloin resident Del Seymour said 50% to 60% of the people he employs at his nonprofit Code Tenderloin were drug dealers on the streets of the Tenderloin, including himself.
“If we want to take the drug dealers off the streets, we have to come up with another method to pay their bills,” he said.
Seymour created a proposal for the Hustlers Alternative Project, which was among dozens of projects that applied for a Tenderloin community grant from the city last year, but it didn’t get funded.
Preston has been a critic of the police since joining the board. He was the lone vote among 11 supervisors against the budget the past two years because of his opposition to more police spending.
He said Tuesday that he opposed more overtime funding because the police spent “recklessly,” and he believes that police could manage deployment to maintain priorities with current resources and that more spending would not transform street safety. In his push for other public safety funding, Preston has some support from community members such as Seymour.
But others in the neighborhood have called for more officers and firmer action to tackle street-level dealing and dangerous conditions. The Tenderloin Business Coalition, representing dozens of businesses, demanded a meeting with Breed and police last month and asked for more solutions.
In response, the city put more cops on overtime on the streets in a targeted operation to deter dealing. Those who supported the push say they have noticed fewer dealers on targeted blocks, although problems still remain elsewhere.
Preston said while he doesn’t agree with the business coalition’s support for more money for police, he’s met with them and they supported giving grants to businesses, which he proposed.
Breed held a news conference in the Tenderloin last week surrounded by elected officials, police, nonprofit leaders, community ambassadors, residents and business owners urging supervisors to pass the police overtime supplemental.
The Hotel Council of San Francisco, a nonprofit trade industry organization, joined with unions including the San Francisco Building & Construction Trades Council and Unite Here Local 2 representing hotel and food service workers to get behind the police spending. The coalition sent a letter in support of the funding to the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday. These powerful unions are typically influential over moderate and progressive supervisors alike.
When asked Tuesday why he was among the minority of his colleagues opposed to the overtime supplemental, Preston pointed to politics.
“It’s become highly politicized, with a massive public relations campaign to convince everyone that unless they support endless amounts of money for the Police Department, they somehow don’t support public safety,” he said. “I don’t think that’s a fair framing, but it certainly works to put pressure on the politicians.”