SAN FRANCISCO (KRON) — In San Francisco alone, thousands of people continue to die on the streets. Among those on the frontlines of this crisis is SF District Attorney Brooke Jenkins who promised a tougher approach to crime when she took office just over a year ago.
Yet, the death count in San Francisco this year is on track to break records. KRON4 sat down with Jenkins to talk about the progress her office has made and the challenges she says stand in the way of getting dealers off the streets.
Read the Q&A below.
KRON4: You took office a year ago — promising a tough-on-crime approach… more prosecution for drug offenders. but overdose deaths are up compared to last year. Why isn’t the problem getting any better?
Jenkins: I just want to clarify what I promised San Francisco was balance that we would do our jobs effectively as prosecutors to ensure public safety while ensuring that we continue to be innovative about reforming the system. Yes, overdose deaths are up and that continues to be a concern. It’s something that took years to get to this point of the crisis, and it’s going to take us some time to repair it and to get it under control. But what we know is that we’ve made good progress.
KRON4: Walk us through some of that progress.
Jenkins: I want to first highlight the partnerships that have been initiated and are certainly in place not only with the police department, but with our state and federal partners. We have not really been at the table with any other law enforcement agency in years to make sure that we have an aligned strategy on how to address these issues and now we have that in place with the CHP, sheriff’s department, National Guard, as well as the DEA and the U.S. attorney’s office trying to advance how much progress we can make if we all work together.
KRON4: You’ve mentioned that a big blocker to making sure that these drug dealers are held accountable is that you have officers out there on the on the streets who are making these arrests and that the judges, according to you, are not really following through. So, you know, if it’s the judges, in your words, that are failing San Francisco, then what is it that needs to change here?
Jenkins: I want to be clear that we are going into court advocating for what is the best public safety decision that needs to be made. Many of these dealers are repeat offenders. They have excessive quantities of the most deadly drug we’ve ever seen in our country and we are asking that they be held. We’ve filed over 100 motions to detain on repeat offenders and those with egregious quantities of fentanyl, only to have 15 of those motions be granted. Some are just sitting pending a ruling while these individuals remain out on the street, some of them having two or three open drug dealing cases. And that cannot continue. Our judicial bench is going to have to be more responsible with the decisions that they make.
KRON4: It sounds like a large amount of the responsibility is being placed on the on the judicial side. Who really is accountable? Who is really going to be responsible for helping to put an end to this? Because you’re all part of the same system.
Jenkins: This is a system that has many parts to it. We have a job as prosecutors to go into court and to advocate on behalf of public safety and what we think is the right decision for a judge to make at the outset of a case. We don’t get to decide whether or not someone remains in custody while their cases open. We can only advocate our position and hope that the judge rules in alignment with us. Now, how we settle cases oftentimes is up to us and so we do have to take accountability if we give a plea offer that doesn’t reflect accountability. But I have changed that in our office to make sure that our plea offers are responsible. But at the outset, we have to have judges make responsible decisions about custody status.
KRON4: So is there a change that needs to happen in that aspect?
Jenkins: Judges are independent individuals. (No one) can tell them what to do. They simply have to review a case, review the facts, review our arguments and make a decision. And I’m just trying to implore to them that we are seeing death rates that are exceeding the last two years that cannot continue because we’re simply allowing repeat offenders of selling fentanyl to cycle back out onto the street.
KRON4: Speaking of that cycle. why do we continue to hear stories about people being taken into custody and then just being released right away?
Jenkins: I mean, that is a part of the problem is that unless and until the judges decide that in order to keep the public safe, that we have to keep repeat offenders, in particular, and certain drug dealers behind bars during this time. There’s going to be no disruption in what’s going out going on out on the street. If you have to arrest someone four times before, the court will hold them in custody. That’s a that’s a pretty big mountain to climb when you’re talking. We have hundreds of dealers on our streets right now.
KRON4: What are the consequences right now for people who are caught dealing drugs that are laced with fentanyl?
Jenkins: So right now, we are making sure that we take an individualized approach in each case: someone with certainly multiple offenses, somebody who’s been arrested multiple times. And we clearly graduate what we believe are the appropriate consequences for those individuals. If people are users and simply have an addiction problem, then we are doing everything we can to incentivize them to take advantage of treatment opportunities.
KRON4: Open-air drug use obviously continues to be a problem in San Francisco. Is arresting drug users an effective way to stopping the problem?
Jenkins: I certainly believe we need a multi-pronged approach to this problem, which clearly is at crisis levels. I mean, I have two small children. I don’t want them growing up seeing people openly use drugs on our street to think that that is normal behavior. We are at a point now where we have to intervene in the situation that’s going on again with the intention to connect these people to services — even if it’s on an involunteer way.
KRON4: Walk us through how your office deals with repeat offenders, whether it’s the dealers or with people who use.
Jenkins: With respect to the dealers who are repeat offenders, we are asking they remain in custody while their cases are open. They have demonstrated they cannot and will not follow the laws of the city and county of San Francisco. And we are making sure that when we offer them a plea deal, that it is commensurate with their conduct. Some of those plea deals do include jail time. It depends on the situation. We take it on a case-by-case basis. We’ve gone to trial in a number of these cases because we cannot agree to what an appropriate plea is with the public defender’s office. But we believe that there has to be meaningful accountability for what’s happening on our streets right now.
KRON4: Do you see safe injection sites being a possible solution to all of this?
Jenkins: I think we have to put every possible measure on the table for discussion. We are we need to save more lives, and we need the ability to intervene right away when someone is using. But I certainly don’t just want somewhere that where we sort of blanketly license the drug use. We need to always be trying to connect people to recovery services and to treatment resources.
KRON4: Governor Newsom, he introduced more CHP (officers) to San Francisco. As we all know, SFPD has more officers on the streets. How effective do you see increased policing in stopping this fentanyl issue?
Jenkins: I think it is going to be one of the most effective tools that we use at this point in time. We have gone through what I would call multiple years of decriminalizing drug sales in San Francisco. That is how we got to this point. People don’t even hide it when they’re doing it anymore. And we have to get back to a place where they see San Francisco as a risky place to do criminal behavior and to sell drugs. We’ve seen the arrest rates go up quite significantly in that regard. And again, I think it is having an impact.
KRON4: How do you really get to that root to addressing the root cause of the problem, though? Right. We can keep making arrests. We can keep getting more drugs off the streets. But how do we get to the root of the issue?
Jenkins: People have to obviously feel like there’s a pipeline to employment, to legal employment, to being able to take care of themselves. But again, I don’t use coming from a poor background or not having money as simply a gateway or an excuse to engage in criminal conduct. I didn’t come from very much at all, very humble beginnings, but I understood I had to follow the law.
KRON4: What is the single most important thing your office is doing right now to stop the epidemic of fentanyl deaths in San Francisco?
Jenkins: We’re enforcing the laws. I mean, that is where it begins. We have to do our jobs fundamentally. We cannot continue to turn a blind eye to what’s going on on our streets.
KRON4: Do you think it’s possible to fully eradicate the problem of open-air drug dealing in San Francisco or is this just now part of our everyday normal?
Jenkins: I’m certainly realistic that we will not eradicate drug dealing completely. That will always be something that exists in our society. But I certainly want to get back to the days where people tried to hide what they were doing, not where they saw a police car and thought nothing of it because they were saying to themselves, ‘it doesn’t matter if I get arrested because no one’s going to impose any meaningful consequence for what I’m doing.’
KRON4: What is one thing you can commit to the parents who lost their children to the fentanyl epidemic in San Francisco?
Jenkins: I can certainly commit that I won’t give up this fight, that I will continue to do my job as the district attorney of San Francisco and make sure that we are doing everything we can to make it more difficult for people to acquire that drug and more difficult for people to sell that drug on our streets. Again, as a parent who’s lost my own child for different reasons. I know what it’s like to bury your child. And I don’t want to keep seeing and meeting mothers and fathers who have to go through that, certainly because people aren’t doing what they are supposed to be doing as city leaders to control this issue.
I think the one other thing that I would mention is, you know, we’ve seen a number of bills come through the state legislature with respect to fencing all in different ways of trying to address this issue. One of the most important being our ability to warn those who are convicted of selling this drug that it is deadly and that it could lead to someone’s death, and that if we can link it to that death, I believe that we should be charging them with murder. We are not at a point now where in this city we can give that warning in court. And so I just continue to push for people to urge their legislators all across the Bay Area to really think hard about that warning and the fact that we need to be able to give it. These dealers need to be reminded of the dangers of what they’re doing.
KRON4 reached out to the San Francisco Superior Court for their response to the district attorney’s statements. A spokesperson said the DA’s claims about the judges’ rulings were “too vague” to address.