Drug arrests in San Francisco have declined dramatically over the past two years without causing a spike in violent crime, calling into question the link traditionally made by law enforcement between drug law enforcement and reducing violent crime.
According to figures compiled by the San Francisco Examiner, San Francisco police made 9,505 drug arrests in 2009, but that number dropped dramatically to 5,834 last year. As of October 15, there had been only 3,751 drug arrests this year, leaving the city on pace to end the year with fewer than 5,000 drug arrests if current trends continue. That means drug arrests declined 39% in 2010 over 2009 totals and are on track to decline another 25% this year
Meanwhile, violent crimes have also decreased during the same period, although not so dramatically. In 2009, police reported 7,391 violent crime arrests; a year later, that figure had dropped to 7,139. As of October 15 this year, police had logged 5,366 violent crimes (the figure last year at the same date was 5,715). If the current rate continues to year’s end, the number of violent crimes should drop to somewhere near 7,000.
That’s a 3% decrease in violent crime in 2010 and another 6% decrease this year. This even as drug arrest rates also plummet.
“This has been somewhat of a de facto decriminalization of drugs – in other words, they’re not being prosecuted,” San Francisco Sheriff Michael Hennessey told the Examiner. “And it does not appear that violent crime in San Francisco has risen, so it may say something about the necessity for the war on drugs.”
Hennessy said he noticed a shift in 2010 after the police department’s drug lab was embroiled in scandal and hundreds of drug cases were dropped. The jail population dropped dramatically then, possibly because of fewer arrests and prosecutions for drug crimes, he said.
Former San Francisco Police Chief and current District Attorney George Gascon told the Examiner that as police chief, he began focusing more on midlevel drug dealers and drug offenses associated with violent crimes, sending some minor drug possession cases to neighborhood and community courts. He said he is continuing that approach as district attorney.
Street level police said they were continuing to make low-level buy-bust and undercover operations, particularly near schools, but acknowledged that the department has less grant money for certain drug enforcement operations. Also, budget cuts have shrunk the force and resulted in less overtime.
“We’re doing more with less,” said Capt. Joe Garrity, whose district includes the Tenderloin, a drug dealing hotspot in the city. But drug arrests were declining there, too.
UC Santa Cruz professor of sociology and legal studies Craig Reinarman told the Examiner the majority of drug arrests are traditionally been for petty offenses, mostly marijuana. “The relationship between those arrests and violent crimes was always more tenuous than police like to let on,” he said.
Hmmm…maybe San Francisco is on to something.