On April 29, Kenny Reed of Suisun City was shot and killed at the intersection of Mason & Market at 4:49 p.m. It was a horrific scene. Reed was a victim of a triple shooting, which also struck two San Francisco residents — leaving them with non-life threatening injuries — in broad daylight.
For the dozens of stunned passersby who witnessed the scene, the message was clear: downtown San Francisco isn’t safe, even while the sun is out.
But for people who actually live and work in the Mid-Market neighborhood, crime — driven by poverty, addiction, and a weak social safety net — has been a fact of life for months or years, depending on who you ask.
As San Francisco remains unable to stem rising rates of drug overdoses and effectively address its ballooning population of unhoused individuals, burglaries in Mid-Market have also been climbing. Between January and June of this year, burglaries increased 38.8 percent compared to the same period pre-pandemic in 2019, according to SFPD data, assaults are also up 9.4 percent. The change has been visible to any San Franciscan or regular city visitor, as encampments and open drug use has crept deeper into SoMa. Used syringes and charred strips of aluminum foil litter the sidewalks.
It’s undeniable that there is an active humanitarian crisis happening in Mid-Market. But who are the victims?
A new safety program, born out of a collaboration between the Tenderloin, Mid-Market, and Civic Center Community Benefit Districts, the Mid-Market Business Association, Urban Alchemy, BART, SFPD, and the office of Mayor London Breed, attempts to answer to some stakeholders’ needs by adding “vibrancy” and “safety” to the neighborhoods. The plan includes an increased, visible, armed police presence that began on May 19, and the deployment of Community Ambassadors from the organization Urban Alchemy on every block. Proponents praise the plan for using both police and individuals with lived experience in low-income communities to not just punish wrongdoers, but connect people down on their luck with social services. But social justice advocates in favor of defunding the police say the program prioritizes business interests over local crime’s true victims: those who suffer from violence and the cycles of poverty and incarceration that over-policing exacerbates.
An equitable safety plan should “center victims and survivors who are least represented in conversations around public safety,” says Tinisch Hollins, Executive Director of Californians for Safety and Justice. The organization has published a Blueprint for Shared Safety, which outlines guidelines, in detail, for drafting equitable safety programs. One of the key tenets is putting crime survivors at the center. “I would argue that the Mid-Market Community Business District, or Merchants Associations, are probably a lot more influential in conversations around public safety.”
Though social justice activists are not particularly organized in response to the hyper-local plan, they say it is yet another example of why they are often at odds with the mayor and former supervisor over criminal justice reform. As proven by her biography — the mayor grew up in Western Addition housing projects and has had members of her own family killed by the police — Breed knows well the tension between the police and low-income, BIPOC communities. She also consistently disappoints activists, who say she leans on police to solve the city’s problems. They point to a scandal last year, in which unearthed texts showed Breed asking Police Chief Scott and others to clear homeless of the city’s sidewalks because they were out too late or she was “in the area having lunch.” They also point out that despite Breed’s pledging to redirect significant funding from the SFPD budget into Black communities, her proposed budget for next year actually increases police funding.
The Mid-Market Vibrancy and Safety Plan is “very consistent with what the mayor has done over the past several years, which is paying lip service to this idea of responding to public health crises with public health professionals. But instead, in practice, doing the exact opposite,” says Jamie Chen, an activist with the Defund SFPD Campaign. “Instead of addressing the root causes of substance use disorders, and homelessness, this plan really doubled down on the failed War on Drugs, and then tried to cover it all up in the rhetoric of public and social justice.”
For the record, the Mid-Market plan does not directly increase police funding — SFPD says they have simply been ordering more of their officers to the area who would usually work elsewhere. Though the SFPD press office would not say how many more officers have been working in the neighborhood since they were initially deployed on May 19, the Chronicle reported that the program includes 26 sworn officers: 18 during the day and 8 in patrol cars at night. However, the plan does include $8.8 million in city funding and another $3 million from UC Hastings to pay for unarmed Community Ambassadors from Urban Alchemy.
That might seem like a satisfying concession for social justice advocates: after all, Urban Alchemy ambassadors are deployed to the area to connect people to social services, rather than arrest them. However, Chen says he’s suspicious. Part of the ambassadors’ job is reporting crimes in the area, which Chen says is just policing by another name. “A teacher who sends a student to the school resource officer instead of dealing with a behavioral issue in the classroom, that is an example of policing,” says Chen. “Just as a Community Ambassador, who’s surveilling unhoused people, collecting evidence, and reporting to the police is another example of policing.”
Steve Gibson, interim director of the Mid-Market Business Association, says that the original proposal for a safety plan drafted by the Business Association and neighborhood community benefit districts did not include SFPD — that, he says, was the mayor’s idea. He and his colleagues drafted the plan because homeless encampments were blocking the doors to several businesses they represent, who were already struggling to keep their doors open amidst the pandemic. However, he understands why the mayor’s office believes police are necessary to address other problems in the neighborhood, like a stolen goods market near UN Plaza. “Those things need police powers to deal with, in addition to Urban Alchemy’s role.”
Both Urban Alchemy and the mayor’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
The Mid-Market Vibrancy and Safety plan will likely be effective in solving business owner’s problems: afterall, a visible police presence is a fairly strong incentive to get petty criminals, poor folks, and unhoused people to move to a different area or hide their hardship from public view. Critics, like Chen, say the plan was likely formed with that goal in mind.
But it’s the goal itself that is the problem. Prioritizing the needs of the least marginalized limits the program’s success, says Hollins — safety does not “trickle down” from the wealthy to the poor. However, focusing on the needs of the most marginalized — addressing drug crime by focusing investment in addiction treatment, for example, or extending support to victims of violent crime who may be, themselves, perpetrators of petty theft or drug use, promotes healing for everyone.
“If you have experienced a loss that impacts you personally, professionally, something should be done about that,” says Hollins. “But if we can swim further upstream, and address the root causes, then we increase the chances of well being for everyone.”