San Francisco votes on measures to compel drug treatment and give police surveillance cameras

A San Francisco Police Department officer walks around Union Square, Friday, March 1, 2024, in San Francisco. Voters in San Francisco will weigh in on a pair of public safety measures on the Tuesday, March 5, ballot that reflect frustration over crime and drug use in the politically liberal city, including a proposal to compel treatment for adults who receive cash welfare benefits if they are using illegal drugs. The other ballot measure would expand police powers, granting city officers greater leeway to pursue suspects in vehicles, authorize police use of drones and surveillance cameras and reduce paperwork requirements including in use-of-force cases. (AP Photo/Godofredo A. Vásquez)

A San Francisco Police Department officer walks around Union Square, Friday, March 1, 2024, in San Francisco. Voters in San Francisco will weigh in on a pair of public safety measures on the Tuesday, March 5, ballot that reflect frustration over crime and drug use in the politically liberal city, including a proposal to compel treatment for adults who receive cash welfare benefits if they are using illegal drugs. The other ballot measure would expand police powers, granting city officers greater leeway to pursue suspects in vehicles, authorize police use of drones and surveillance cameras and reduce paperwork requirements including in use-of-force cases. (AP Photo/Godofredo A. Vásquez)

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Voters in San Francisco will weigh in on a pair of public safety measures on Tuesday’s ballot that reflect frustration over crime and drug use in the politically liberal city, including a proposal to compel treatment for adults using illegal drugs who receive cash welfare benefits.

The other ballot measure would expand police powers, granting city officers greater leeway to pursue suspects in vehicles, authorize police use of drones and surveillance cameras and reduce paperwork requirements, including in use-of-force cases.

Mayor London Breed, a centrist Democrat who is in a tough reelection battle, placed both measures on the ballot. She faces three serious opponents who say her administration has failed to deal with drug crimes, vandalism and theft. There is no primary in San Francisco — voters will rank all the candidates by preference in the November election.

Democratic leaders in liberal cities across the U.S. have had mixed results as they struggle to balance progressive criminal justice reforms with fed-up voters. In San Francisco, retail theft, record fentanyl overdose deaths, and the struggle to bounce back from the pandemic have frustrated residents and drawn negative attention from national media outlets.

Voters ousted progressive District Attorney Chesa Boudin in a heated recall election in 2022, saying he was too lenient toward criminals. Across the San Francisco Bay in Oakland, progressive Mayor Sheng Thao faces a potential recall election amid a crime wave that has prompted Gov. Gavin Newsom to send in California Highway Patrol officers and state prosecutors to help.

Supporters of the two propositions on Tuesday’s ballot have far outspent opponents. They include tech-backed civic advocacy groups and CEOs like Chris Larsen of the cryptocurrency firm Ripple and Jeremy Stoppelman of Yelp.

“These two propositions are incredibly popular,” said Kanishka Cheng, executive director of TogetherSF Action, the political arm of TogetherSF, a civic advocacy group she co-founded at the start of the pandemic with billionaire venture capitalist Michael Moritz.

Even if the measures are not perfect, she said, “people are so frustrated, they’re willing to try something different. That’s the sentiment I hear from voters every day.”

Opponents accuse tech billionaires of trying to buy the election and say Breed is simply trying to shore up votes for November. The proposals will not make the public safer, they contend.

Proposition F would require single adults without dependents on local welfare — about 9,000 people a year — to be screened for illegal drug use. If they are found to be using drugs, an addiction specialist and the recipient would agree on treatment options that include residential care, a 12-step program, individual counseling and replacement medication.

There is no sobriety requirement, only that a person make a good-faith effort to participate in treatment if they want to receive cash assistance, which maxes out at just over $700 a month.

Supporters include recovery advocates, who say it is far too easy for people to get and use illegal drugs in San Francisco and there are not enough options to help them become sober.

Sara Shortt, a spokesperson for the No on F campaign, counters that the measure punishes people who need help and could result in them losing housing.

“People will not be comfortable going to request services when they know they will be asked intrusive questions and then mandated to participate in a program,” she said.

Proposition E would make a number of changes to the police department, including reducing the powers of the citizen police oversight commission, which the mayor says is micromanaging the department.

The measure would also allow police to install public surveillance cameras, use drones, reduce paperwork and engage in more vehicle pursuits, something they currently can do only in cases of a violent felony or immediate threat to public safety.

Giving police more leeway is supported by people like Michael Hsu, whose athletic footwear and apparel store Footprint has been broken into multiple times, most recently on Jan. 1. Police arrived as the suspects were leaving but they could not pursue them because no lives were at risk. Hsu said the robbery cost him about $20,000.

But Yoel Haile, criminal justice director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, which heads the opposition, said expanding car chases will result in more people being hurt or even killed in the densely packed city.

Meanwhile loosening paperwork requirements will mean less transparency and the use of technology will allow greater secret surveillance by police, he said, adding that the way to make neighborhoods safer is through more housing, treatment options and jobs.

“What is being proposed is more power to the police, more resources to the police, more punitive policies,” Haile said. “Those have been tried and failed.”

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This story corrects Kanishka Cheng’s title. She is executive director of TogetherSF Action.

AP Politics

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