San Francisco’s New DA Vows to Ramp Up City’s Drug War

    Recall District Attorney Brooke Jenkins? That’s what some San Francisco residents are saying, more in hope than expectation, after Mayor London Breed appointed her, on July 8, to replace ousted DA Chesa Boudin.

    Having worked as a prosecutor under Boudin, Jenkins resigned in October 2021 to become the public face of the successful recall campaign against him. She pilloried the reform-minded DA for allegedly transforming the city into a hotbed of crime, claiming that “lives continue to be lost due to his catch and release system.”

    But DA Jenkins has not emphasized violent crimes as the focus of her own tenure. Rather, like some grim 1980s throwback, she has repeatedly pledged to become an ardent drug warrior.

    “When I gave my acceptance speech … I indicated to the public that on day one, I will begin enforcing drug crime law,” Jenkins said in one interview. “That is something that I wasn’t just saying because it sounded great in a speech, but because that’s what I meant.” She has repeated this refrain on social media.

    Already, she appears to be backing up her words with actions.

    Focusing her most concentrated ire on people who sell drugs, Jenkins charges that, “We can’t be treating drug sales as a victimless crime anymore because there are true victims—people are dying.” Naturally, she did not explain how she thinks targeting sellers will reduce overdose deaths (it will not).

    Already, she appears to be backing up her words with actions, for example ordering a review of drug cases with an eye to reversing decisions made under DA Boudin.

    She’s also thrown her support behind Mayor Breed’s dystopian plan to allow police to use private security footage for surveillance purposes.

    “I believe this policy can help address the existence of open-air drug markets fueling the sale of the deadly drug fentanyl,” Jenkins wrote. “Drug dealers are destroying people’s lives and wreaking havoc on neighborhoods like the Tenderloin.” The Tenderloin is already the scene of Breed’s law enforcement crackdown on unhoused people and drug use.

    That voters in “America’s most liberal city” would make political decisions with this outcome undercuts recent arguments that the country is moving beyond its drug war. Rather, the war’s fronts merely seem to be shifting, as well as local reasons for supporting it.

    In many places, the demonization of drug use is about suppressing people of color, LGBTQ people or leftwingers. It is about animus. Sometimes, it is about capitalism, when employers think employees who are “drug free” are more productive. In San Francisco, it often seems to be about comfort. Residents who do not use banned drugs, and believe they are inherently bad, have their sensibilities injured by the sight of fellow human beings, often unhoused, using so-called “hard” drugs.

    But it is highly unlikely that DA Jenkins will be able to make housed San Franciscans feel safe and comfortable, even if she visibly pursues the policies many of them wanted.

    Higher incarceration rates, for one thing, do not reduce deaths or fear of crime. And even if that weren’t the case, top local prosecutors may be powerful, but they are still single cogs in a vast criminal justice apparatus.

    By the standards of those who backed the recall, DA Jenkins will almost surely end up failing. Yet she could do much damage in her attempts to “succeed.

    The San Francisco Police Department has a low clearance rate: A mere 8.1 percent of reported crimes ended in an arrest in 2021. For all Jenkins’ desire to revamp the drug war, such realities may tie her hands.

    When Boudin, who was not quite the uber-progressive he was caricatured as, criticized SFPD’s clearance rate, Chief Bill Scott balked. He pointed to a 2019 clearance rate of 100 percent for homicide and around 30 percent for robbery. But homicide, which is relatively rare in San Francisco compared to other major cities, is not what local residents are mad about. They are mad about NIMBY issues: property crime and drugs. Police chiefs are not elected, however, so it is DAs who get clobbered when local residents are unhappy with law enforcement generally.

    By the standards of those who backed the recall, DA Jenkins will almost surely end up failing. And yet, both in San Francisco and in the places that look to its example, she could do much damage in her attempts to “succeed.

     


     

    Photograph of street art in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district by Wally Gobetz via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0

    • Rory is a writer and licensed attorney. Previously, he ran Foglight Strategies, a campaign research services firm for forward-thinking prosecutors, and worked for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, Harvard Law School Fair Punishment Project and the National Network for Safe Communications at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He lives in Philadelphia.

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