San Francisco mayor ramps up aggressive policing after city is targeted by right-wing media

San Francisco mayor ramps up aggressive policing after city is targeted by right-wing media
Photograph of London Breed in 2017 by Pax Ahimsa Gethen via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 4.0

Declaring that “We need to take back our Tenderloin,” a hip, mixed-income neighborhood in San Francisco with a large unhoused population, Mayor London Breed announced a new plan in a Medium blog post on December 15.

Its focus is on “interrupting” open-air drug sales and public drug use. Interrupting refers to making arrests, as Breed acknowledged by citing a recent felony arrest warrant sweep. Only after that will social service providers “work in concert” with the police for the second phase of her plan.

Using rhetoric that harkens back to the heyday of the War on Drugs, Breed wrote that police “will continue targeting the criminals—the drug dealers—who prey on people struggling with addiction and poverty and other issues.”

Ignoring the harms and racial injustice inherent to such crackdowns, Breed even acknowledged that ramping up policing will cost more money. In bold letters, she wrote that “we will need a budget supplemental to help fund SFPD overtime.” She stated that she plans to introduce that request in January 2022.

These proposed policies may surprise some people who live in other parts of the United States. San Francisco is widely seen as the nation’s most progressive city—decidedly not a city governed by centrist Democrats. But that common view from non-locals does not describe the politics on the ground.

It is notable that Mayor Breed’s announcement comes on the heels of national publicity for the recall against the San Francisco’s top law enforcement officer, reformist District Attorney Chesa Boudin.

While Boudin’s policies of reducing prosecutions seem little different to those embraced in cities as diverse as Baltimore, Boston and Tucson, his tenure has attracted exceptionally vitriolic criticism from segments of the community. Some of this has been fueled by national-level conservative media, which frequently ties the DA to his parents’ Weather Underground convictions.

John Hamasaki, a reform-minded member of the San Francisco Police Commission who was appointed by the Board of Supervisors in 2018, is skeptical of Breed’s plan. He attributed the change to the mayor, too, feeling the heat from what he characterized as right-wing recalls and the targeting of San Francisco by media outlets like Fox News.

“We all know that substance use, mental health, and homelessness are not policing matters,” he told Filter. “We can address crime, while requiring the proper non-police professionals to address poverty, mental health, or substance use.”

While some have called Breed progressive, her record has been complicated since she first got into politics. Breed served as a member of the city’s Board of Supervisors from 2013 until 2017, where she was pointedly accused of standing with real estate developers over local residents struggling with poverty. She also developed an antagonistic relationship with the press, calling one significant media outlet a “bullshit ass blog” because she was upset by some of its coverage.

In late 2017, former mayor Ed Lee unexpectedly died, and Breed was appointed acting mayor. During the weeks leading up to the June 2018 special mayoral election which saw Breed elected to the office, city residents received letters from George Shultz, a Republican superstar who served on the presidential cabinets of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. One of Breed’s staffers also attempted to garner a second-choice endorsement from the Republican Party Central Committee after the local Democratic Party refused to endorse her, selecting Supervisor Jane Kim instead. (San Francisco has ranked-choice voting, and the mayoral seat is nominally nonpartisan.)

As mayor, Breed has repeatedly shown herself to believe more policing and prosecution is the solution to myriad social issues her city faces.

In 2020, a public records request suggested that the mayor used the police department as her personal anti-homelessness squad. “Man sleeping on bench on Hayes st near gough,” Breed texted the police chief, Bill Scott. “Can someone come ASAP. I’m in the area having lunch.”

That same year, when activists holding Black Lives Matter signs came to her house to protest her inaction on more ambitious police reforms, she denounced them as “all white” and even compared them to the Ku Klux Klan.

And back in 2019, when former San Francisco DA George Gascón announced that he would retire from the seat a month early, Breed appointed Suzy Loftus, an old-guard prosecutor who made a crackdown on property crimes the cornerstone of her subsequent election campaign, as his replacement.

Tucked away in Breed’s latest announcement was a pledge to reverse the city’s pioneering stance on new surveillance technologies that undermine residents’ right to privacy. In 2019, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted 8-1 to largely ban facial recognition technology by law enforcement. That move was seen as having particular salience since it came out of a city often defined by tech growth.

The mayor claimed that this policy “hobbled law enforcement when confronting life-threatening incidents like active shooters, suspected terrorist events, hostage taking, kidnapping, natural disasters, or looting.” She did not provide evidence or examples.

Shahid Buttar, an attorney who worked as the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s director of grassroots advocacy, was one of many advocates who successfully pushed for the city’s groundbreaking ordinance. He told Filter that this claim was “disinformation from the mayor, parroting police talking points in order to insulate the police-industrial corruption from civilian oversight.”

Mayor Breed’s office declined Filter’s request for comment.

This article was originally published by Filter, a magazine covering drug use, drug policy and human rights. Follow Filter on Facebook or Twitter.

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