SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — At a special session Thursday that extended into early Friday morning, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors ratified Mayor London Breed’s public health emergency declaration concerning rampant, open air drug use in the city’s Tenderloin neighborhood.
The 8-2 vote followed more than eight hours of fraught discussion, where some supervisors expressed concern about granting the mayor sweeping emergency powers set to last 90 days, along with perturbation at not being consulted about Breed’s accompanying plan aimed at curtailing brazen drug abuse, street crime and skyrocketing fatal overdoses.
Just as the board was about to enter its winter recess, Mayor Breed gave an impassioned speech that drove progressives into paroxysms of worry that the city would devolve into a dystopian police state.
“People have to be held accountable for the crimes they commit in our city and police officers have been critical to our ability to do so,” Breed said in a city hall address on Dec. 14. “It’s time for the reign of criminals that are destroying our city to come to an end, and it comes to an end when we take the steps to be more aggressive with law enforcement to change our policies and be less tolerant of all the bullshit that has destroyed our city.”
As her statement reverberated throughout the media landscape, it appeared to many that Breed was advocating flooding the streets with police officers to force drug addicts into treatment and arrest those who refuse.
“We’re not gonna give them the choice anymore,” she said.
The declaration also grants the mayor the authority to move money and personnel within departments without the board’s blessing, a prospect that made some on the board uneasy.
"I could never vote for that if the mayor planned to do that,” said Supervisor Hillary Ronen, a longtime homeless advocate whose district includes the Mission, Bernal Heights and the Portola.
Andres Power, the mayor's chief of staff, tried to allay her fear that it would result in money being reallocated to the police department.
“I can say unequivocally that our office will not use the authority of the emergency order to provide appropriation to the police department,” he said. “I make that commitment here publicly.”
Ronen also said she needed assurances that police officers would not arrest people for using drugs, since the jails are already at capacity and arrests would only overburden the courts.
“We don't have capacity in our jails to arrest people for being sick, so that doesn't makes sense,” she said. “We currently have a backlog of over 400 cases in the courts — cases that are awaiting trial or hearings.”
Turning to Police Chief Bill Scott, she said “I need you to promise me that you will not arrest and incarcerate people because they are sick.”
Scott pledged that arrests would be a last resort. He said officers prefer to direct drug users to services but don’t know who to call.
While he said the police would “not use arrest tactics to clear the streets,” the police cannot ignore people openly doing drugs. "On the one hand we're being asked not to arrest people. But on the other hand, we're asked to be out there when things are happening. So we're in a no persons' land where, if they see people using fentanyl but are asked not to arrest people, what are they being asked to do? We need efficient ways to get people to the services they need if we're not going to be arresting," he said.
Department of Emergency Management director Mary Ellen Carroll said the declaration will “cut through the red tape” to allow the city to hire more mental health workers, and establish a “linkage center” to direct people toward shelter, hygiene and drug treatment options.