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San Francisco Board of Supervisors vote in favor of mayor’s emergency declaration over drug use

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.

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.

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“Police want a place to refer people. They want to actually help people. All of us feel the frustration of seeing people on the street and seeing people die and police officers don't want to see that either,” Carroll said, adding, “It’s up to the police department to decide if they need to take action for a law enforcement perspective.”

One consolation for Ronen was that the emergency order would allow the Department of Public Health to immediately fill 250 vacant mental health positions.

“There's nothing more exciting to me than this,” she said. “If we could fill those, we could do so much for the people of the Tenderloin.”

Others accused the mayor of media grandstanding. Representing the Richmond District, Supervisor Connie Chan said the Breed was more interested in protecting “corporate luxury brands" over the small businesses on Clement St. that have been repeatedly robbed this year.

“We knew by May of this year that San Francisco was set to break the previous year record on drug overdose deaths, where was this declaration then? Is this simply a political stunt?” she asked.

Chan also criticized the mayor for failing to make an emergency declaration during a wave of brutal beatings of Asian Americans, many of them elderly.

Supervisor Dean Preston, whose district encompasses the Fillmore and Western Addition, called the declaration a publicity stunt designed to deflect blame from the mayor for the drug crisis. Pushing for the vote to be delayed until Jan. 4, Preston also noted Breed’s absence at the meeting, saying she should clarify her remarks about policing before the board. "We could have scheduled this at a time that works for her," he said. "We cannot rely on comments from her administration that sound different from statements she's made over and over.”

Representing the Excelsior and Crocker Amazon neighborhoods, Supervisor Asha Safai said he supported the emergency declaration, but hoped the city would try the abstinence-based treatments provided by groups like the Positive Direction Equals Change, The Salvation Army and Friendship House.

“I want to make sure we're trying new things and not just funding harm reduction programs exclusively,” he said, adding that the situation was too urgent to keep things status quo. “You cannot arrest your way out of a drug addiction crisis, but if people are out there selling drugs and committing crimes, then our police department needs to be involved. And if people are aggressively creating an unsafe environment then the police need to be involved.”

Supervisor Catherine Stefani seemed to agree. “Drug addicts are in no position to make decisions for themselves. They are a danger to themselves, and sometimes to others. We have to accept that harm reduction alone is not working. Consequences work. We are robbing people of their bottoms and I think we are enabling people to their deaths.”

Supervisor Matt Haney who represents the Tenderloin, voted to support the declaration, telling Carroll,  “I’m hoping you can use that time to really jumpstart and challenge some of the inefficiencies and lack of access and hurdles that exist for people to get care. That you can break those down, be accountable about them, to help bring about longer term change.”

Haney was joined by colleagues Ronen, Stefani, Safai and Chan, and Supervisors Rafael Mandelman, Myrna Melgar and Gordon Mar in concurring with the emergency order. Board president Shamann Walton and Preston voted against it.

Supervisor Aaron Peskin did not attend the meeting as he was traveling for Christmas.

Just before the vote, Preston called the mayor’s plan a “waste of time” that “solves nothing,” and slammed her a second time for being absent from the meeting. 

But Mandelman said he believes that Breed cares deeply about the Tenderloin, and that she does not intend to criminalize drug addiction. 

“These issues are personal for her, more so than they are for many of us,” he said. "This is a person who grew up in public housing during the crack epidemic, raised by her grandmother, who has a brother in jail and a sister who died of a drug overdose.”

Ronen, who was leaning against the declaration at first, seemed to change her mind as midnight approached. She pointed out that the emergency order would remove bureaucratic barriers to getting 250 mental health workers hired, and fund a location where drug users can find help. She also noted that the board can rescind their approval if any additional money is used for greater policing.

"I am going to watch this thing like a hawk,” Ronen said. “I am going to continue to fight the mayor tooth and nail about increasing police, but I am going to partner with her when she’s offering services and resources and a healthy response to this crisis."

(A previous version of this story misidentified a member of the Board of Supervisors. Courthouse News Service apologizes for the error.)

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