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Stalemate: Why the SFPD Turns a Blind Eye to Street Dealers

Cops haven’t entirely given up on getting heroin off the streets, but they know it’s a war they can’t win.


This story is part of our special report on the private tragedies and public toll of our injection drug epidemic. Read more of One City, Under the Syringe here.


As the opiate crisis swallows towns in Appalachia and the rust belt whole, in San Francisco, where the crisis is less apocalyptic, police and pushers find themselves locked in a familiar, uneasy stalemate. It’s not quite harm reduction. It’s closer to benign neglect.

“It’s kind of like a détente,” says Dan Ciccarone, a professor of family and community medicine at the UCSF School of Medicine. “The unwritten rules are, ‘You get flashy, you get flagrant, you get violent, we’re gonna bust you.’” Like many drug policy experts, Ciccarone thinks this somewhat hands-off approach to street dealing is reasonable: “There’s no evidence that the heavy arm of the law leads to sustaining benefits,” he says.

The SFPD declined interview requests to discuss its approach to street dealing. Asked for arrest statistics, a department spokesperson instead talked about the 17 times this year that police officers saved overdosing opiate users with a naloxone kit. The truth is, street dealing is a no-win subject for the SFPD. Cops won’t admit that they tacitly allow a certain amount of blatant pushing, but neither can they deny the reality that citizens see every day.

What data is available supports the notion of a protracted cooling-off. In 2008, there were 7,592 felony drug arrests in San Francisco. That number plummeted to 860 last year. In the courts, felony opioid drug cases that were actually prosecuted dropped from a monthly average of 218 in 2013 to 153 in 2015. The main reason for this drop is Proposition 47, the 2014 ballot initiative that downgraded most drug offenses from felonies to misdemeanors, but other factors play a role as well. District Attorney George Gascón, who as police chief launched an ineffective sweep of dealers in the Tenderloin, has since denounced the war on drugs as a failure.

To get busted these days, says longtime off-and-on heroin user Johnny Lorenz, “you basically have to take a kilo bag and hit a cop in the face with it.” A small but telling indication of the department’s priorities came when Police Chief Bill Scott recently announced that to fight skyrocketing car break-ins, he was shifting cops from the narcotics division to walk street beats.

However, the SFPD could soon come under more pressure to get drugs off the street. The heroin circulating in San Francisco is cheaper and stronger than ever. Overdoses are skyrocketing, and it’s only thanks to naloxone that the body count has remained at around 100 in recent years. Even more ominously, fentanyl, the killer synthetic opioid, is turning up everywhere—including in meth and crack. The number of drug cases in the Hall of Justice has crept up somewhat in the past year. But barring any massive public outcry or a change in the political winds, the drug dealers who have been fixtures at TL corners for years will probably still be there next year, and the year after, and the year after that.


Originally published in the October issue of San Francisco 

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