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 Gascón, 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.