At a 9 a.m. press conference in Civic Center Plaza, the San Francisco Sheriff’s Office announced the deployment of 130 deputies on foot and in marked cars to arrest people using drugs in public. At present, they will be assigned to this effort over the next six months, despite the department operating at 76 percent staffing.
Arrests for public drug use will begin this month and will be concentrated in the Tenderloin, Civic Center and parts of SOMA. Already, Mayor London Breed has told reporters that in recent weeks, the city has arrested 25 people using drugs. Breed said none of them had accepted services, and it’s unclear if any remain in jail.
Tara Moriarty, communications director for the Sheriff’s Office, said that, since May 30, there have been 58 “multi-agency arrests” for public intoxication which, in all instances but one, accompanied other crimes.
She said that 25 of the arrestees were Latinx, 23 white, nine Black and one American Indian, with more than half self-reporting that they were homeless, and nearly a quarter were from outside the county.
The new effort, said Sheriff Paul Miyamoto, is to “eradicate open-air drug use and assist those suffering from harmful behavior.” Miyamoto described the new protocol as crucial for intervening in the fentanyl epidemic.
Across the street, as the press conference went on, around six deputies surrounded a woman going through a mental health crisis outside the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library. As several Urban Alchemy workers stood by, deputies occasionally asked questions, but most of their time was spent watching the woman’s episode.
In his remarks, the sheriff disparaged harm reduction — like needle exchange programs and safe consumption sites — as “doing more harm than good.”
However, he said, “we’re not advocating for harsher punishment,” and “jail can be a place for compassion and accountability.”
Present were District Attorney Brooke Jenkins, SFPD Chief Bill Scott, Supervisors Ahsha Safai and Matt Dorsey and members of the Department of Emergency Management, which is handling communications among departments as part of the city’s “multipronged” approach to drug addiction.
Breed’s Monday announcement of SFPD’s arrests for public intoxication marked the latest attempt by city agencies to crack down on the fentanyl epidemic, following previous crackdown announcements by Breed going back to 2021.
That has not yet stopped overdose deaths, however: Scott said that, in 2023, 268 people have died of drug overdoses, a majority involving fentanyl. Scott said that it is possible for arrests to “be empathetic and compassionate.”
“What this is about,” said Scott, “is the streets of San Francisco being safe; being the type of city where we can walk and enjoy this beautiful city without having to step over somebody passed out on fentanyl.”
Miyamoto said that they will likely extend the new system beyond the allotted six months into January, and it’s “built to sustain for longer periods.”
Speakers emphasized that officers will act in response to calls and complaints, and the added presence of deputies on the streets will mean more on-site arrests, but it remains unclear what exactly will lead to an arrest.
After the press conference, Sgt. Philip Judson of the Sheriff’s Office listed examples of behavior that might prompt him to book someone, including “wandering,” shooting up, smoking fentanyl, seeming high or drunk, or acting erratically.
When asked exactly what the process looks like, Miyamoto said simply, “it’s what you see right here in front of you,” gesturing to the ranks of deputies and several SUVs behind him.
“It’s not with the intention of keeping them in jail,” said the sheriff. “It’s with the intention of getting them help.”
Those out and about in the Tenderloin were mixed on the issue. A few blocks from City Hall, Yvonne, a worker with Urban Alchemy, said she’s happy about it. Yvonne grew up in Bayview and occasionally sees her brother on the streets in the throes of addiction.
As she spoke, her perspective shifted; “I want to start a nonprofit to help people. So they wouldn’t go to jail, but so there’s more people on the street helping them right here.”
Justin, a drug user who was walking out of an SRO, said he had been arrested for drug use before, and he was still using. “I don’t like the idea,” he said referring to the new crackdown.
A passerby yelled, “Sounds like a good idea to me!”
One worker at a community garden expressed skepticism, calling the new protocols a reaction to negative media for the city.
Moriarty said the county jail “has a whole team of nurses and clinicians,” and that officers “won’t just be picking people up for being high.” According to Moriarty, people have to have paraphernalia on them or be visibly using dangerous drugs to get booked.
At nearby Code Tenderloin, founder Del Seymour said it’s nearly impossible for jail to help someone struggling with addiction.
“That’s no way to treat a sick person,” he said. “Why doesn’t [Mayor Breed] send 130 clinicians out?” A former addict himself, Seymour recalled that his own addiction heightened while he was behind bars.
He pointed out that depriving an addict of drugs augments the odds of an overdose after they’re released from jail. “People who’ve been away for a while — that first hit might kill them.”
Down the street, a man paused his bike to smoke heroin mixed with fentanyl off a piece of foil. The man, named Adam, said he’d been arrested years ago for drug use.
“Jail crushes you,” he said. “It crushes you, and you’re left with nothing.” Thinking for a moment, he said, “I’m worse off than I was before.”