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San Francisco ties welfare to drug-screening, boosts police powers in stunning tough-on-crime shift

San Francisco Mayor London Breed delivers her State of the City address at the Pier 27 cruise terminal in San Francisco, Thursday, March 7, 2024. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
San Francisco Mayor London Breed delivers her State of the City address at Pier 27 in San Francisco. (Eric Risberg / Associated Press)

Mayor London Breed was all smiles during a packed primary party on Tuesday in Hayes Valley, a boutique neighborhood about a half mile from City Hall, stopping for selfies and congratulations as she navigated the crowded bar toward a microphone.

"Change is coming!" Breed shouted to thundering applause from the patio at the hip cocktail bar Anina.

Early results showed promise for a slate of local candidates running on a more centrist agenda, and for ballot measures that would transform downtown with new development and called on the city school board to reinstate Algebra I as an offering for middle school students.

But the focus of Breed's excitement that evening centered on two ballot measures she had championed to broaden police surveillance powers and impose drug treatment mandates that were garnering overwhelming voter support — a stunning rightward shift for a city known nationally for its progressive politics.

Mayor London Breed celebrates with supporters at an election night party.
San Francisco Mayor London Breed rallies supporters during an election night party. (Godofredo A. Vásquez / Associated Press)

The first measure, Proposition E, bolsters police powers in the city. The second, Proposition F, will require drug screening and treatment for people receiving county welfare benefits who are suspected of illicit drug use.

The measures give teeth to efforts to address the city's open-air drug addiction crisis — and the street crime and rampant homelessness that come with it. Taken together, they give credence to Breed's message that San Francisco is not the bastion of lawlessness its critics love to claim.

"Enough is enough," Breed said. "We need change."

Breed faces a difficult reelection campaign in November as she seeks a second full term in office. Two of her opponents — Levi Strauss heir and nonprofit founder Daniel Lurie, and venture capitalist Mark Farrell, a former district supervisor and interim mayor — are considered moderates by San Francisco standards, and have blasted the mayor for the city's street conditions and the lagging post-pandemic economic recovery.

A third opponent, Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin, is a well-known progressive likely to garner support among stalwart liberals concerned with the city's recent shift toward the center.

As she navigates a middle path forward, Breed's supporters hope the ballot victories inject her reelection bid with a jolt of energy and chart a clearer path for a city that has struggled to get homeless people off the streets and to rebound from the pandemic-related exodus of its downtown tech sector.

"This is a really good night for London Breed, Madam Mayor," state Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) told the crowd. "This city has been getting beaten up for the last few years, and San Francisco is coming back, and it's going to be even better than ever."

The ballot measures approved Tuesday build on several initiatives Breed has spearheaded over the past year to put teeth to the city's efforts to stem drug addiction and overdose deaths, adding punitive components to policies that long have centered on a gentler treatment-focused approach.

Last fall, city officials announced plans for a law enforcement task force, set to launch in spring, that will investigate opioid deaths and illicit drug dealing in the city as potential homicide cases. Months before, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom deployed the California National Guard and California Highway Patrol to target drug-trafficking networks funneling fentanyl into the Tenderloin and South of Market neighborhoods, an operation that has led to hundreds of arrests.

Breed contends those efforts are paying off: Over the last six months, property crime has fallen by 30% and violent crime by 4%, according to the mayor's office.

San Francisco Mayor London Breed talks to supporters during an election night party.
San Francisco Mayor London Breed says the ballot measures voters approved this week give needed teeth to efforts to address the city's drug crisis. (Godofredo A. Vásquez / Associated Press)

Breed said the drug-screening initiative will build on those efforts by compelling more people with substance-use disorder into treatment.

Proposition F, set to go into effect in January 2025, will modify the County Adult Assistance Programs, which offers cash benefits to low-income single adults 65 and under without dependent children. Recipients will now be required to undergo a drug-screening assessment if there's "reasonable suspicion" they struggle with substance-use disorder, and to enter into treatment if warranted.

Proponents say the change will safeguard city resources against a street drug culture that's ballooned because of San Francisco's lenient policies and generous benefits.

The program assisted about 5,700 people monthly in the 2022-23 fiscal year, according to the city controller's office, with some recipients receiving up to $712 per month. Between March 30, 2023, and the start of February, 141 people who were cited for public drug use were also receiving the county assistance, according to the mayor's office. Of those, 33% did not actually live in San Francisco.

"This is just adding another level of accountability of screening, and hopefully what will lead to the kind of results we want to see: people who are in treatment and people who end up getting clean and sober," Breed said.

Critics of Proposition F dismiss it as a poorly crafted proposal that fails to fix the roots of the city's homeless crisis: a lack of affordable housing and quality treatment options. They echoed a popular progressive tenet that forcing people into drug treatment doesn't work, and said the policy changes will have devastating consequences on low-income residents who rely on the assistance for housing and other necessary expenses.

"It's just going to make treatment less accessible for everyone in San Francisco," said Jeannette Zanipatin, state director for the left-leaning nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance. "To sell an initiative with false promises is just really the mayor and her office choosing political convenience over really trying to roll up their sleeves and find real solutions that are actually going to have an impact on the overdose crisis."

Read more: Some D.A.s are fighting fentanyl with murder charges. Why San Francisco will join them

The measure wasn't drafted with specific rules around how the drug screening will be administered or how treatment will be enforced. Breed has directed the city's Human Services Agency to create an "action plan" for implementation, meaning it could be months before official guidelines are available.

Breed's office has said the measure was intentionally designed to be flexible on the treatment component. Treatment options could range from out-patient services to a prescription for buprenorphine, a medication used to treat addiction. They noted it doesn't include a requirement for participants to remain sober, recognizing that people often lapse in recovery and shouldn't be kicked out of the program for a slip-up.

"I don't think Proposition F is as bad as its critics say it is, and it's probably not going to be a panacea as some of its more fervent supporters said it was either," said Supervisor Matt Dorsey, a moderate Democrat who's been candid about his own addiction recovery journey. "But I do think on balance, it's a step in the right direction.

Wiener, one of the state Capitol's leading progressives, didn't support Proposition F but said he understands why people voted for it. "Only by San Francisco standards would this be considered moderate," he said. "As in many cities right now, there is a concern about public safety and public drug use and people want their neighborhoods and their city to be as good as it can be."

Proposition E, the measure that bolsters police powers, also passed handily. The measure weakens certain oversight authority by the Police Commission, which has been a voice for clamping down on police use of force.

The measure also eases restrictions that have been blamed for fostering a lax police response to retail and property crimes. It provides more leeway for police to pursue suspects by car and allows officers to use drones for certain pursuits. The changes also loosen requirements for documenting suspect confrontations that lead to police use-of-force and authorize body camera footage to stand in for certain paperwork.

Supporters of Proposition E said it will cut the amount of time police spend behind desks on administrative tasks and ensure they are properly equipped with technology to fight crime. Opponents see a troubling retrenchment toward reduced transparency and oversight.

"It made it easier for SFPD to hide police violence and makes it harder for the public to hold police officers accountable," said Yoel Haile, director of the Criminal Justice Program at the ACLU of Northern California. "What we're seeing right now happen is politicians who are offering the public these tried and failed solutions as the magic bullet to real frustrations that people have about crime and public safety."

Breed is offering no apologies.

On Thursday, she delivered her State of the City address at Pier 27, a waterfront venue with a shimmering view of the city's skyline as her backdrop. She sharply rebutted the narrative that San Francisco had lost its progressive way, instead positing that Tuesday's election results were in alignment with the city's liberal values to house and treat those suffering from addiction and provide communities with quality policing.

Throughout her speech, she doubled down on the message that San Francisco is turning a corner, proclaiming it a "city on the rise."

"San Francisco is not wearing the shackles of your negativity any longer," she said as the room echoed with applause.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.