Despite more arrests, San Francisco will have the highest number of accidental overdoses on record.
SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- More than six months ago, San Francisco police received a directive from the mayor to start making more drug-related arrests, targeting both drug dealers and users.
On Dec. 21, 2023, ABC7 News was invited to follow plainclothes officers during one of many drug surveillance operations in the two neighborhoods where drug dealing is rampant.
We drove with Officer Robert Rueca of the San Francisco Police Department.
"We have people who are observing the actions of the suspect and we're going to try to move in and make an arrest," said Officer Rueca.
In the past year, 2023, police arrested 960 suspected dealers in the Tenderloin neighborhood alone, compared to 566 the previous year in 2022.
We arrived just as the suspect police were observing was arrested.
"So we're doing a narcotic surveillance operation, where we set up one officer watching the area. They observed what they believe to be a suspected hand-to-hand narcotic transaction, then they radio us - the arrest team. They give us a description, a detailed physical description of the person. They tell us where they are at. As the arrest team, we move in and place the person under arrest then we wait for the officer that saw the observation. We wait for them to come over here and then they conduct a search, " explained Sgt. Daniel Solorzano.
Because he has not been convicted, we aren't showing his face.
Police find several stashes in his backpack of what they believe is crack cocaine.
Most officers here are certified Spanish speakers.
Lyanne Melendez: "Where is he from?"
Sgt. Solorzano: "So he has a Honduran passport."
Melendez: "So he's from Honduras. Are a lot of people dealing drugs from Honduras?"
Sgt. Solorzano: "Very, very many, yeah."
One of the arguments made by the former District Attorney Chesa Boudin was that many dealers were immigrants from Honduras who'd been illegally trafficked to the United States.
In court, many still use that as part of their defense, but that's not what officers say they hear on the streets.
Melendez: "Do people say they are here because they fear for the lives of their families in Honduras, they're been threatened?"
Sgt. Solorzano: "From my experience, we're not even really told that. They're here to send money back home, not because they are victims of human trafficking or anything like that."
The suspected dealer gave police a different name from that on his passport, which he happens to have with him. He had been arrested before using a false name.
Police told us, half of the suspects arrested for the sale of drugs were either on probation, pretrial release or had active stay-away orders -- this despite requests made in court by the current DA, to keep them in custody.
"We're explaining that many of them have been arrested not once, not twice, even three times for deadly fentanyl in our cities and these judges are not taking it seriously. They are allowing the courthouses to be a revolving door," said San Francisco District Attorney Brooke Jenkins.
The number of drug users in the Tenderloin arrested in 2023 nearly doubled from the previous year.
So how is it that the city will have the deadliest year on record for accidental drug overdoses, with 752 through Nov. 2023?
Health department officials have tried to make sense of this disparity by explaining that arresting someone and forcing them into treatment often backfires.
"In fact, their risk of overdose sometimes paradoxically goes up. We've said, you can't use and created a situation where they are not using opioids, their tolerance goes down and a relapse can be deadly," explained Dr. Hillary Kunins, Director of Behavioral and Mental Health for the San Francisco Department of Health.
Police say the reasons are slightly different.
"It just shows how much of a battle this is with trying to keep people alive. People will continue to use," said Officer Rueca.
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