Pubdate: Tue, 13 Aug 2013
Source: San Francisco Examiner (CA)
Copyright: 2013 SF Newspaper Company LLC
Author: Chris Roberts


On his way out of City Hall on a recent evening, Police Chief Greg 
Suhr encountered a crime in progress - a man sitting on the steps of 
a basement entrance, syringe in hand. Suhr said he handled it in the 
way the Police Department currently deals with drug crimes.

"We disposed of the narcotics, and we had [the man] safely dispose of 
the syringe," the chief recalled Monday.

In other words, nobody was arrested and nobody went to jail for a 
nonviolent, low-level drug offense - the types of crimes increasingly 
seen as low-priority for law enforcement, by both the public and police.

Drug arrests are on a steep decline in the Bay Area and in San 
Francisco, where such arrests - for felonies and misdemeanors - have 
dropped 75 percent over the past five years, according to California 
Department of Justice data.

In The City in 2008, police made 9,832 drug-related arrests, 75 
percent of which were felonies. In 2012, police made 1,534 such 
arrests, nearly all of which (1,403) were felonies.

A 2010 change in state law that made low-level marijuana possession 
an infraction rather than a misdemeanor has lowered arrest stats, but 
police say the arrest reduction is more due to staffing changes and a 
philosophical shift in law enforcement's approach to drugs.

Heather Fong was still the chief of police in 2008, the high-water 
mark for drug arrests over the past decade. Within two years, drug 
arrests had dropped by half.

When Suhr took over from Fong's successor, George Gascon, in April 
2011 he inherited a police force 300 officers below its 
"full-strength" complement of 1,971. To devote more resources to 
serious, violent crimes, Suhr drastically downsized the narcotics 
unit - once 100 strong - to an unspecified smaller number of 
inspectors who now focus on trafficking, the chief said Monday.

The change appears to be for good. The department's old arrest-heavy 
approach "wasn't working," Suhr said.

"Across The City, the push was to get the users into treatment, and 
treat [drugs] as a public health issue and not a criminal issue," he said.

While no specific data is available to show how many arrestees now 
see treatment centers rather than jail cells, Suhr said nonviolent 
drug offenders are given the option to access services, including education.

Other Bay Area cities have seen similar drops. Oakland made 4,035 
drug-related arrests in 2008, but that dropped to 1,071 in 2012. In 
San Jose, there were 6,217 such arrests in 2008 and 2,190 in 2012, 
according to Justice Department data.

The shift won praise from the Drug Policy Alliance think-tank and San 
Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi.

"It's in line with what the public wants," Adachi said Friday. "The 
focus should be on violent, serious crimes."

A spokesman from the San Francisco District Attorney's Office noted 
that drug prosecutions had dropped 69 percent in four years.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom