San Francisco’s new top prosecutor Brooke Jenkins signaled her commitment to clamping down on drug dealing by visiting the epicenter of the overdose crisis in one of her first acts as district attorney.
Jenkins organized a walk-and-talk early Tuesday with Tenderloin fixture Randy Shaw, head of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, before holding a press conference to double down on her pledge to end “open-air drug markets” and clean up the streets for families that live in the area.
Jenkins, who was appointed last week by Mayor London Breed, said San Francisco can no longer treat the Tenderloin with “indifference.”
“I didn’t want to just hear the stories,” Jenkins told reporters after touring the neighborhood. “I’ve been through the Tenderloin many times. But to actually walk down the street and have to navigate those who are selling and those who are using… it’s a very different experience and so it’s something that I am committed to improving.”
Jenkins quit her job as prosecutor for former District Attorney Chesa Boudin last fall to become a spokesperson for the campaign that successfully recalled him. Since her appointment, she has zeroed in on the battle for the Tenderloin as her top priority. But days after being sworn in as Boudin’s successor, she has yet to articulate a strategy for accomplishing her goals.
As of the end of May, 238 people have died of an accidental drug overdose in San Francisco this year, according to preliminary data from the Medical Examiner’s Office. Nearly a quarter of those deaths occured in the Tenderloin, and far more than half of them involved fentanyl.
San Francisco recorded 641 fatal overdoses last year and a staggering 711 in 2020, when the widespread emergence of black-market fentanyl and the pandemic coincided with a marked increase in drug deaths from previous years.
Since becoming district attorney, Jenkins has promised to work more closely than Boudin with other city agencies and law enforcement, and announced plans to review her office’s open drug cases.
In her first meeting with senior staff at the District Attorney’s Office last Friday, Jenkins asked them to compile all pending plea offers in drug cases made by her predecessor to determine whether to revoke any of the proposals.
Jenkins has criticized Boudin for resolving too many drug-dealing cases as misdemeanors last year. At the press conference, she cited a report by The Standard that Boudin convicted three defendants of felony drug dealing in all of 2021 as a problem. While Boudin has explained that state law required him to consider the immigration consequences of securing more serious convictions for undocumented dealers, Jenkins pushed back.
“Immigration status is something that we are required to take into account and it will be taken into account,” Jenkins said. “But that does not equate to an absence of accountability, we still have to hold those who sell drugs in this city accountable and that is what I have committed to doing.”
Jenkins was speaking to a throng of reporters in the parking lot of a hotel at Eddy and Larkin streets. The event came a day after Jenkins put her first policy position in writing by urging the Board of Supervisors to approve a proposal from Breed to expand live surveillance by police.
Tom Wolf, a formerly homeless resident recovering from drug abuse who worked with Jenkins to recall Boudin, showed up at Tuesday’s press conference to support her. After the event, he pointed to men across the street who he said were drug dealers and who appeared to be laughing at the press conference.
Wolf said the new DA will be successful if she can reduce—not necessarily eliminate—the number of drug dealers on the streets. He accused Boudin of essentially shirking his role in solving the crisis.
“A previous DA made a decision that this was just a health crisis only and not a criminal justice crisis,” Wolf said after the event. “The reality is that this is both.”
But Del Seymour, a longtime Tenderloin community activist, was less optimistic. In the middle of the press conference, Seymour accused Jenkins of failing to meet with real residents of the neighborhood. Afterward, he told The Standard Jenkins met with “monied interests” handpicked by City Hall.
“She still doesn’t have an impression of what the challenges and the handicaps are of those people who are living in those tents,” Seymour said, “and why they are selling drugs, why they are using drugs.”
A spokesperson for Jenkins said she met with Shaw as well as community residents, local property owners and staff from the Tenderloin Community Benefit District. Media was not allowed to follow along on her tour.
Seymour said politicians have long promised to clean up the Tenderloin, home to some of the city’s poorest residents, recent immigrants and among the highest concentrations of homelessness and visible drug abuse.
“I have heard this same speech before,” Seymour said. “I have been here 35 years. This corner looks like it did 35 years ago.”