Do any San Francisco Police Department officers live in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood? I ask because the Tenderloin station’s recently departed Captain Joe Garrity sent out a departing email message to a District 6 yahoo group last week saying “I always tell people everywhere I go the Tenderloin is the best community in San Francisco, California.” Given Garrity’s assessment, one would think that SFPD officers would be flocking to live in San Francisco’s “best” neighborhood. But I doubt that’s the case. I also doubt Garrity really believes that a community where residents must wade through public drug dealing on sidewalks is the city’s “best.” Garrity’s comments reflect a broader police strategy that has captains building relationships in the Tenderloin and talking a good game as a poor substitute for providing the officers necessary to make the community safe. This strategy has worked in recent years, but Tenderloin residents and workers are no longer buying it.

Having worked fulltime in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood since 1982, I appreciate positive comments about the community. But there is a difference between promoting the neighborhood’s potential and making believe that serious problems do not exist. The latter approach is untrue, and creates a false impression that greater resources are not needed.

A police department that has shortchanged the Tenderloin understandably wants to tout that all is well in the neighborhood. But this false assessment does not make those who live or work in the community feel better about its problems. To the contrary, it sends a message that the police are so disconnected from neighborhood reality that they are unlikely to seriously tackle the public drug dealing problem.

The Best People in a Troubled Neighborhood

Former Tenderloin Captain Gary Jimenez, forced out of the neighborhood in October 2009 for allegedly not being a “team player,” regularly offered an honest assessment of the community. Jimenez talked about how the Tenderloin had some of the best people and residents of any neighborhood in San Francisco, and that it was wrong for them to have to pass sidewalks filled with drug dealers who come from outside the area.

Jimenez talked publicly about the unfairness of low-income Tenderloin families forced to walk unsafe streets. He said that the hard-working people of the neighborhood were not getting a fair shake from the city.

No wonder he had to be replaced. His comments inspired residents to demand more from the city, rather than accept the status quo.

Jimenez felt that if given enough officers, he could end the Tenderloin’s longtime role as a business site for out of area drug dealers. And when George Gascon became San Francisco’s police chief in the summer of 2009 and immediately pledged to end the Tenderloin’s role as a containment zone for drug dealers, he gave Jimenez the officers necessary to do the job.

And Jimenez succeeded. He used his staff of 101 officers to visibly and dramatically reduce public drug activities in the Tenderloin.

The Chronicle’s CW Nevius described this successful effort in an August 26, 2009 column in which “he presciently concluded, ”It could be the first statement by the new Chief, or just another fruitless attempt to get the Tenderloin under control.”

Sadly, it would prove the latter.

In April 2010 The Wall Street Journal reported on the “backlash” against reducing Tenderloin crime. Gascon was accused of “straining city resources” by both Public Defender Jeff Adachi and Sherriff Mike Hennessey. Adachi’s office saw a 35% rise in cases, and Hennessey said that the Tenderloin arrests required him “to open four jail housing units, at a cost of at least $500,000.”

Elaine Zamora, who headed the North of Market/Tenderloin Community Benefits District at the time, was quoted in the WSJ article saying “Who doesn't want the streets safe, but the reality is this effort is unsustainable." I took issue with her at the time, accusing her of being unduly negative rather than supportive of the Gascon-Jimenez effort.

But Zamora was right. The SFPD soon reduced its Tenderloin police force from 101 to 91 and then to 69 (seven recruits will soon be added to bring the number to 76). This staffing reduction returned Tenderloin drug dealing to prior levels, reducing expenses for public defenders and jail staff.

This cost savings was borne by Tenderloin residents, whose quality of life worsened as drug dealers returned. Nobody needs to ask whether residents of the Richmond, Sunset, Pacific Heights, or Adachi's home neighborhood of St. Francis Wood would ever have to accept drug dealers on sidewalks in order to avoid increased public defender or jail staff costs; the answer is obvious.

Gascon, current Chief Suhr, Garrity and everyone else in law enforcement knows how to stop the Tenderloin from remaining a drug dealer containment zone. But they prefer to talk a good game. Garrity’s claim that the Tenderloin is currently the “best” San Francisco neighborhood is part of this strategy, but based on my conversations with residents in the past week, the people of the Tenderloin are no longer buying it.

Randy Shaw is Editor of BeyondChron. In 1985, he and Leroy Looper spearheaded a “March Against Crime” through the Tenderloin that was joined by Mayor Dianne Feinstein and top city officials.