Thursday, September 24, 2009

More on Policing the Tenderloin

The new SFPD chief, George Gascon, is a man on a mission. Having been shocked by drug trafficking in the Tenderloin , he has announced a mission of aggressive policing in the area in an attempt to curb the drug trade. The SFPD enforcement efforts have Today's paper focuses on mass arrests conducted near schools as a result of buy-bust operations.

While some believe this attention is necessary, others are less optimistic. The Public Defender's office wonders about the effect massive arrests (300 by Sep. 3 and counting!) will have on the court system. Others are cynical about the possible outcomes. I'm mostly reminded of the fourth season of David Simon's masterpiece series The Wire, in which police commanders are subject to inquiries and humiliation in their weekly COMPSTAT meetings. Much as they try to juke the stats, crime rates don't go down. Until Bunny Colvin decides to quietly and clandestinely legalize drugs in his district.

The experiment is successful on many levels, though it does have some ill effects. The new district, affectionately called "Hamsterdam" by its inhabitants, mostly regulates itself, the occasional act of violence notwithstanding. Social service providers appear on the scene with condoms, syringes and medication. And everything seems to work, more or less, until the secret is revealed, and the giant machine of the War on Drugs is unable to contain and accept it.

Less arrests, less trials, and the drugs move away from the community. But even if Chief Gascon was willing to consider a Hamsterdam alternative, is there any area in the city which we would feel comfortable ceding to the drug trade?

Some folks are considering other possible regimes for legalization. One group of advocates for such solutions includes LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition). Last night I had a chance to hear Norm Stamper, former Chief of Police in Seattle, speak about the harms of the war on drugs and the need to end it. Rather than advocating a free drug market, Stamper advocates a state monopoly on growth, manufacturing and sales, and taxation. I'm not sure a state monopoly system is realistic, but his ideas are interesting.

Your thoughts and comments appreciated.

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