SF DA Jenkins gets applause — and some criticism — at public safety forum

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Saturday March 11, 2023
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District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, left, moderated a safety town hall March 10 at the Upper Noe Valley Recreation Center that featured District Attorney Brooke Jenkins, police Chief William Scott, Healthy Streets Operations director Sam Dodge, SF SAFE security services manager Furlishous Wyatt, and District 8 safety liaison Dave Burke. Photo: John Ferrannini
District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, left, moderated a safety town hall March 10 at the Upper Noe Valley Recreation Center that featured District Attorney Brooke Jenkins, police Chief William Scott, Healthy Streets Operations director Sam Dodge, SF SAFE security services manager Furlishous Wyatt, and District 8 safety liaison Dave Burke. Photo: John Ferrannini

City officials came to Noe Valley Friday evening to talk to residents of San Francisco's District 8 about their roles trying to keep people safe though there was a small protest of District Attorney Brooke Jenkins outside the venue.

And residents turned out — with almost a hundred people attending the forum at the Upper Noe Recreation Center, which was moderated by gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman. (The meeting was also streamed on Facebook Live.)

The forum featured Jenkins, San Francisco police Chief William Scott, Healthy Streets Operations Center director Sam Dodge, SF Safety Awareness for Everyone security services manager Furlishous Wyatt, and District 8's public safety liaison Dave Burke.

While Jenkins received applause for some of her comments — particularly around what to do about open-air drug dealers, she also was criticized by some who protested outside the rec center.

Martha Hubert, a straight ally who also lives in Noe Valley, was one of three demonstrators outside while Jenkins was exiting the meeting.

"This is billed as a public safety forum," she said. "It's not about the safety of Black and Brown people."

Hubert talked about the police killing of Keita O'Neil, an unarmed carjacking suspect killed by police in the Bayview neighborhood in 2017. In 2020, former district attorney Chesa Boudin charged a former SFPD officer with manslaughter in his death, in a first for the city. Last month, Jenkins announced her intention to dismiss those charges.

In a letter to California Attorney General Rob Bonta, Jenkins wrote, "It appears that the case was filed for political reasons and not in the interests of justice."

Hubert disagrees.

"She's no saint," Hubert said of Jenkins, who walked by to a shout of "Recall Jenkins" from another protester but did not respond.

During the town hall, Mandelman summarized questions that'd been submitted to his office. Members of the public also had the ability to ask their own questions by writing them on slips of paper that were handed to Mandelman. He read from these for about 20 minutes.

Among the topics Mandelman brought up were how Scott and Jenkins are trying to balance public safety with criminal justice reform.

Scott said it will take five to 10 years for his department to be fully staffed.

"Recruiting and policing is really a mathematical equation," Scott said, adding that SFPD is about 25% short-staffed. "Only 15% of the applicants end up making it to the [police] academy and 60-75% [of those] make it through the academy, so we have to increase the number of people applying."

Scott said many officers left after the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which sparked international protests against police brutality and racism but also demoralized police officers.

"2020 after the George Floyd incident — it was just total chaos in this profession," Scott said. "Total chaos — and I got to admit officers just felt beat down. ... We lost a lot of people really quickly who just said 'I don't want to do this anymore.'"

However, Scott has seen signs of hope, as applications doubled in 2022 and there have been almost 1,000 since November 1.

Scott said he is grateful the San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved more overtime funding for officers, and also that in 2020 the department identified some 27% of its responsibilities that could be handled by other agencies. Many police departments around the country have examined how some non-emergency calls could be handled by other municipal departments in the aftermath of the Floyd killing.

"Some people do use animals in ways that are criminal and we should be involved in that," Scott said, citing an example. "But barking dogs and things that can be handled by another department, we want to encourage that to not be a police response."

Ultimately, Scott said, "If you don't get the service you expect from us, elevate it."

"When we don't perform like the public expects us to, we can't make excuses. We have to address it, we have to fix the problem and we have to make sure people don't have those experiences," he said.

Mandelman agreed that it's good that "the department is looking at greater use of civilians to do things police do but could be done by civilians so that police can be freed to do more traditional police work," but also said overtime is a stop-gap measure.

"Ultimately [overtime is] not a great solution because it burns people out," he said.

Mandate for change

Jenkins said she believes she has a mandate for change after she replaced ousted DA Boudin, a self-styled progressive prosecutor. Boudin was recalled last June and Mayor London Breed appointed Jenkins, a former prosecutor in his office who resigned and was a spokesperson for the recall campaign.

Jenkins went on to win election last November to complete Boudin's term.

Jenkins painted a picture of an office in chaos when she was appointed by Breed — she said the office has lost 62 prosecutors and 20 victim advocates under her predecessor but that there have been so many people hired lately there is only one attorney vacancy left.

The perception of a lawless city threatens the very future of San Francisco, as hard as that may be to believe, Jenkins said.

"If businesses do not stay here we could become Detroit, we could become Baltimore," she said, referring to cities that have seen crime figures spike. "I say this all the time: that view is not enough — it's not enough to sustain us."

Jenkins said that her office's collaboration with the police department is "at an all-time high," in contrast to an often-fraught working relationship during Boudin's tenure.

"We should be able to look the community in the eye, the victim in the eye, and say we argued what was best for public safety," Jenkins said. "It's making sure our cases are resolved responsibly. That when we are looking at who should go to diversion, who should go to alternative courts, that we are making thoughtful decisions."

Jenkins said that providing justice isn't an either/or proposition.

"One thing I've tried to make clear is I'm trying to bring balance back into this system," Jenkins said. "We are a city founded in its fabric on compassion and on second chances and all those things ... but we have to have accountability, we cannot eliminate that from our criminal justice system."

Jenkins got wild applause when she said that fentanyl dealers cannot be charged with misdemeanors — felony charges are warranted — and she wants many of them who are arrested and charged to remain in jail as their cases proceed through the court.

"For egregious sellers we are going to ask the court to keep them in custody when their cases are open," Jenkins said.

"That is something novel and new," she added, incredulously, because only repeat offenders and violent criminals had been kept in custody in most cases in the past.

But fentanyl is "much more deadly and dangerous than crack cocaine," she said, which calls for a tougher approach.

"We have to articulate to the court that these are dangerous people," Jenkins said. "What they are selling is fatal; it's as dangerous as a gun."

It's not just dealers, either. Jenkins said sometimes the criminal justice system has to be used to "compel people into treatment."

"I'm a mother of two small children. I don't want to be driving around explaining to them 'Mommy what's that person doing' and saying, 'that's not normal that's not OK,'" Jenkins said. "I don't think it's compassionate to leave people on the street, languishing, ultimately to die of addiction."

So after a threshold of three citations for public drug use, the DA's office's policy now is to file charges on all three, Jenkins said.

Dodge said healthy streets' job is to come to encampments, ask people to leave, and try to get them into better housing situations.

Nonetheless, "There's not just one response to tents," he said.

In some neighborhoods, including the Castro, a smaller team under Dodge's aegis works with the Department of Public Health to "look at services people may need, including and up to conservatorship."

"It's a moral obligation we have as a city," Dodge said. "It's a tough hurdle we have to make, but we have to make it."

Wyatt said the SF SAFE nonprofit provides trainings and other public safety resources, the full complement of which are available on its website.

The nonprofit provides "community watch, business watch, offers surveys to residential dwellings, multiple dwellings, ma and pa stores up to Fortune companies, presentation and trainings from robbery, identity theft, workplace violence, and the list goes on and on," he said.

SF SAFE also provides active-shooter trainings and will "come out for a group as small as three to five people." A couple of those trainings have taken place for LGBTQ bar owners.

File a report

Wyatt and Burke agreed that filing a police report is a better way to get a problem addressed than going on the social media sites such as Nextdoor.

"If you are ever a victim of a crime please make the report," Wyatt said. "If they [police] don't know it happened — and I'm going to say something: stay off of Nextdoor. If you can be on Nextdoor, you can report the crime. ... A lot of audiences say, 'Why doesn't the police department put someone to monitor Nextdoor?' That's not going to happen. ... A lot of people will say the police department didn't contact me. That's why they have the police report. You call: you give the [case] number."

Burke, a straight ally who is a civilian public safety liaison through SFPD with Mandelman's office, said Nextdoor is "toxic" and "makes Twitter look like Hallmark."

Nextdoor did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this report Friday evening.

People with safety issues in District 8, which includes the Castro, Noe Valley, and other neighborhoods, can reach out to Burke if they have a public safety concern, and he said he would try to assist, he explained.

"I'm not a beat officer — I'm not a police officer, but I try to build relationships," Burke said. "I worked with the city attorney years ago so my superpower is I know everybody so I try to use that experience to make the system better."

Virginia Badenhope, a straight woman who lives in Noe Valley, attended the town hall because she's "been frustrated with being confronted on the street and — like District Attorney Jenkins said — not feeling safe."

"I wanted to hear what the city was going to do about it," she said.

Badenhope felt better about the state of city governance after the town hall than before.

"I feel much better about the state of the city, knowing people are thoughtful about the problems and not just taking a sledgehammer to issues," she said.

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