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Can This Black, Latina, Progressive, Pro-Police DA Turn San Francisco Around?

A conversation with Brooke Jenkins about drug dealers, judges, and reforms that don’t fit on a bumper sticker.
February 2, 2023
San Francisco DA Jenkins On Best Way Forward With Policing | Not My Party with Tim Miller

[Editor’s note: Watch Not My Party every week on Snapchat.]

I told the producer and camera guy to meet me at the corner of Stevenson and 8th, right in the heart of San Francisco—three blocks from City Hall, in the shadow of the Twitter headquarters (now a billionaire sleep-space), and across the street from the Proper Hotel, whose rooftop lounge advertises “highbrow bar bites” and “drinks by the Bon Vivants.” We parked in the Whole Foods garage, and upon leaving regretted not grabbing a to-go kombucha for the parking validation.

I chose this corner in part because it’s sunny with a wide avenue, good for shooting this week’s “Not My Party” (see above). But mostly because our chichi surroundings contrasted so sharply with the gatherings of the unhoused, the addicted, and the dealers that mark the city’s financial district.

As we set up our camera on the 8th Street median, a tweaker walked by carrying a 40. He shouted “Dope fiends, nice backdrop,” pressing forward at a breakneck pace without waiting for a response. This rattled me a bit, as did the view of a man sitting under a nearby tree who spent the better part of three minutes trying without much apparent success to find a vein in his arm. The whole thing felt intrusive, as though we had sneaked into these folks’ house to leer, but we were very much not in private. And as I stood there shooting a few takes, dozens and dozens of people blew by us without pause, headed to a meeting or to get their afternoon caffeine fix.

It was 1:15 p.m. on a Thursday, and for San Franciscans, this scene is just the new normal.

No matter where you fall on the spectrum from “Just Say No” drug warrior to worried wine dad to criminal justice reformer to police abolitionist—and, full disclosure, I’m nearer to the needles-for-all crowd than the Singapore-style MAGA death panels—it seems like the one thing everybody can agree on is that if dudes shooting up outside the natural foods store is so commonplace it would be strange not to see it, something needs to change.

For SF, identifying the problem is easy; the hard part is figuring out what to do about it. Over the past few years the city has oscillated wildly, electing one of the most left-wing prosecutors in the country in 2020, then recalling him along with a bunch of other local officials last year. Now they are trying a different approach, and many are hoping that the city’s new district attorney, a biracial 41-year-old East Bay mom, offers a synthesis of crime stopping and criminal justice reform that can be the answer.

At the crossroads of seemingly every cultural, social, and policing controversy of the past few years, you would find Brooke Jenkins.

A Black and Latina woman whose oral family history includes the story of an uncle who died in police custody, and who grew up with an ingrained “anxiety” when it came to encounters with law enforcement.

A wife whose husband’s 18-year-old cousin was killed in SF, caught in the crosshairs of gang violence as he walked down the street to meet a girl.

A mother who lost a newborn child, Justice, and who couldn’t get out of bed for months, only finding the strength to do so after becoming determined to find a new legal career that would give her purpose.

A prosecutor in an office that became a test lab for the “defund the police” movement, where she and other lawyers quit over frustration that they were not being allowed to charge crimes.

An activist who became the face of a campaign to recall her old boss, and who was then offered the opportunity to replace him.

Tyre Nichols and police brutality. Urban violence. Defund vs. Law and Order. Black Lives Matter. Battles over COVID interventions. San Francisco: American Dystopia. All of these issues roiling our politics intersect with Brooke Jenkins’s life story and her work.

I wanted to find out how she planned to gather her experiences into a unified vision for her office, how she thinks law enforcement might help fix a broken city and protect the rights of its citizens no matter where the threats came from. We met up at the DA’s office in the tony Potrero Hill neighborhood—a short jaunt away from the downtown drug market, but next to a sleepy park that was closer to Pleasantville than dystopia.

Our meeting was initially planned as a more casual affair. I’d suggested a bar in the beleaguered Tenderloin where we could discuss her beloved Niners’ playoff hopes (RIP) over a draft beer. But the threats that go along with her new role mean new security, and that has turned happy hour, along with much else in her personal life, into a hassle. She is trying to spin the new reality to her two young children as a positive. “I get to sit in the back and talk to you rather than drive,” she told them. She didn’t seem convinced they were buying it.

Jenkins is affable, but in the tough cookie sort of way: power suit with a tight top bun; an easy smile, but unlikely to spin a yarn. There’s no hemming and hawing, no carefully modulated legal-political speak. She tells her comms guy that she’s just going to talk “real.” And real she was.

When I asked her what she would do if I gave her a magic wand that grants one wish that would help make her job easier and disrupt a broken system, the answer caught even me off guard.

“Right now, honestly, we need more police,” she said. (On tape, I can be heard involuntarily blurting “wow” at this statement, which is so bracingly anathema to online left-wing pieties).

She continues, almost apologetic about the stark reality of the city today and what she thinks it would take to start fixing it:

I hate to even say that; I don’t want to see us become a police state. I’ve never been somebody who, you know, as a young person would’ve ever thought I would be saying something like that. . . . But the only way that we can effectively tackle this problem is if we have police stationed where they need to be to make arrests. . . . For drug dealing it takes sometimes four, five, six [cops] to do a single operation, and we’re understaffed by six hundred officers. . . . [Police] presence often serves as a deterrent, right? . . . Unfortunately, we’re at a point now where it seems that that’s the type of deterrence we need. And honestly, when I’m around the city, it’s the type of deterrence that most people are asking for.

She’s right about that. A June 2021 poll showed that even in the supposedly looney-left haven of San Francisco, 3 in 4 residents support more police in high-crime areas and 60 percent thought funding the police academy to get more cops should be a “high priority” for the city.

But that desire for more protection also comes with a big caveat: an understandable distrust and even hostility toward police in the wake of high-profile murders of black men. This issue came once again to the national forefront in the days following our interview, as the Memphis police released bodycam footage documenting the abhorrent behavior of five of their officers in the killing of Tyre Nichols.

Jenkins put out a statement expressing solidarity and demanding accountability:

During our conversation she took pains to get across a message that while she wants accountability for police and reforms to the justice system, she doesn’t want to be forced into the “solutions” being demanded by white, self-proclaimed “anti-racists” who don’t represent the desires of the community as a whole.

There is a segment that wants to use the black and brown experience as their platform. Okay. So historically it’s been black and brown people who have been murdered by police, harassed by police, all these things. We’ve been able to speak for ourselves about what we want, but other people have said, You know what, I want to appear as the anti-racist. That is my platform: I am the anti-racist, I am the champion of what black and brown people need. Therefore, what I believe they must be saying is that they want to abolish the police. No. Go into these communities and ask. Go find out. And so I think that that’s where a lot of this came from was that they heard—they heard the outcry about George Floyd, even pre-George Floyd, and took the torch but distorted the message for their own benefit.

That is some real talk, no doubt! But it’s also a tougher sell politically than the alternatives. “Law and Order,” “Back the Blue,” “Defund the Police,” “All Cops Are Bad” (ACAB)—these all fit on a bumper sticker or a flag. More Police for Some, Miniature American Flags for Others doesn’t.

Jenkins summed up her middle road this way: “You try to figure out how we can have more fair policing, more effective policing without the stereotypes, without the profiling, without the disparate treatment of people of color, while maintaining what is an essential position in our communities.” She went even shorter: “Proper, appropriate, fair policing.” (My suggestion of “more cops; fewer guns” was met with a polite chuckle.)

To be fair, fixing the Democrats’ messaging problems around law enforcement isn’t Jenkins’s top priority. The exigencies of the San Francisco job are big enough to demand all of her attention, and she hopes that the results will speak for themselves. Her first step in that process has been to start actually charging crimes again.

I’ve been very clear that I think we had to restore accountability into our criminal justice system. Charging crime is not enough. We actually have to have a consequence at the end of the day for people who conduct themselves illegally in this city. And I think that’s what the people felt [was] lacking. . . . And that is what was lacking.

In Jenkins’s perspective, that lack of consequence for criminals results in tangible consequences for the city.

We saw an explosion of drug dealing that just was not being addressed. And certainly, being an insider in this office at the time, I knew firsthand that there were things that were not being done in order to promote public safety. . . . They essentially didn’t impose consequences for things like drug dealing, quite frankly. The consequences that they imposed . . . were so lenient that they weren’t doing anything at all.

This question of how to deal with the drug dealers and users is central to the overall problem of crime in San Francisco.

Some criminal justice reform advocates I spoke with told me that this argument about “consequences” was disconnected from the reality of the choices being faced by users and dealers, many of whom were forced into that life by their economic circumstances. Jenkins rejects that line of thinking:

It’s a risk analysis. Yeah. Criminals aren’t stupid, right? Right. People who commit crime are not all idiots. . . . [Dealers are judging]: what is the level of risk in this game? Now, murderers, no. And I’ve never blamed Chesa for the murder rate because no murderer is sitting there saying, Well, should I kill her in San Francisco or should I kill her in Oakland? . . . It’s a crime of passion. Robbery, drug dealing, retail theft, those kinds of things—people make a calculus. Am I gonna take that risk today in this space? Understand: yes. They chose here versus Daly City, certainly.

The data backs this up, in part. Reports of drug crime in the city did rise in 2021 and 2022 after a period of dropping off, according to data analyzed by the San Francisco Standard. Whether more aggressive prosecution of those crimes will have an impact on the drug trade remains to be seen, and although Jenkins has only been on the job for seven months, there is already frustration in some quarters that the results aren’t apparent.

We have to look and see, “Is this a repeat offender, [a] drug dealer who clearly is just somebody who’s committed to that being their career and their trade?” Or is it a situation where somebody is doing something because they are an addict and they’re trying to support their habit, or something else? And so we have to make those individualized assessments, which takes more time. It takes more effort on the part of our prosecutors, but it’s something that we have to do, again, to make sure that we treat everybody fairly for their individual circumstance.

And that’s where the challenge lies for Jenkins: finding a balance between doing right by those who are victims in the drug trade, on the one hand, and implementing the hard-nosed policies to reduce crime she has promised, on the other.

A compelling and detailed report from Leighton Woodhouse at RealClear Investigations suggests that this case-by-case approach would only meet the challenge facing the Tenderloin if it targeted those belonging to the sophisticated criminal order that underpins the neighborhood’s drug trade, replete with Heisenberg-style drug lords, street dealers, petty thieves, and “fences” (people who sell stolen products)—all of them playing a part in an ecosystem that needs to be disrupted.

Jenkins is much more amenable to that point of view than her predecessor, who claimed that the dealers were actually victims of “human trafficking” and that criminals whose activities benefit street gangs shouldn’t be treated with more severe penalties than unaffiliated criminals receive.

We certainly have a situation of it being very organized, of it appearing to be connected to a cartel, yes. . . . We are going to have to disrupt this very organized business model that is functioning on our streets. And when I say that, I mean, like I said, they show up in shifts, is what’s been observed. They have meal delivery service that brings them food so that they don’t have to move. There are things that are uncharacteristic of what we used to see with just our local drug dealers.

But there are three issues making it hard for Jenkins to disrupt this organized system: 1) the aforementioned shortage of police; 2) judges who are letting repeat offenders back on the streets; and 3) SF’s “sanctuary city” status, which makes it hard to deport drug dealers unlawfully in the United States.

I asked Jenkins to share her perspective on one particular example of the judicial review process wherein an alleged drug dealer was arrested four times last year, despite the fact that he had been detained with over 406 grams of fentanyl on him. Her reply:

We are not going to allow these people to just cycle back out onto the street. We need to make sure that we’re protecting public safety. And someone like that who has five open cases for dealing fentanyl, they need to remain in custody while their case is on . . . My lawyers are going in, they’re making [arguments about the need to keep the dealers off the streets] and we’re still running up against some problems.

Some of that stems from judges existing in a space where they had functionally two public defenders for a while. . . . We are saying it is such a huge issue . . . we can’t treat this like we did crack cocaine. Or even methamphetamine. This is a unique animal that requires a different public safety analysis. . . . I just want our lawyers to go in and make the correct arguments and arm the judges with what they need to . . . make the responsible decision.

This seems like common sense. Carrying nearly a pound of fentanyl with an intent to distribute is not in any way comparable to being a small-time drug dealer or an addict who requires a fix or a raver trying to have a good time on Friday night. That’s enough fentanyl to kill a stadium’s worth of people, and it’s likely being provided by a violent international drug cartel. Yet in addition to the difficulty with judges mentioned above, Jenkins is finding herself up against a public defender intent on smearing her desire to keep such a dealer behind bars as “retrograde.”

“As the war on drugs has demonstrated, criminalizing the supply has done nothing to reduce the demand,” San Francisco Public Defender Mano Raju said last fall. Jenkins rejected the claim that this type of treatment of fentanyl is akin to the war on drugs, calling the notion absurd.

Jenkins pitched herself for the office as someone who is looking to do the job, not use it as a stepping stone to a future political career.

But given that her office was once held by the sitting vice president of the United States, it’s hard not to wonder whether a larger political future might be thrust upon her. California is a state where many of the other leading Democratic politicians who have stuck around seem resigned to an unsustainable status quo.

I took a few stabs at that question of future aspirations, but Jenkins wouldn’t take the bait.

No, I don’t have [Kamala Harris] on speed dial—or any dial, that is. I did finally get to meet her recently, which was an honor. She had left this office before I started [in] it eight years ago. But no, my total focus and the only thing that I have time for is to try to save San Francisco.

The test of whether Jenkins has succeeded will be as easy as walking down the street.

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is The Bulwark’s writer-at-large and the author of the best-selling book Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell. He was previously political director for Republican Voters Against Trump and communications director for Jeb Bush 2016.