Brooke Jenkins In As San Francisco DA
On July 7, 2022, former San Francisco assistant district attorney Brooke Jenkins was tapped by mayor London Breed to become the city’s new DA. This, after the ouster a month earlier of DA Chesa Boudin, whose progressive policies voters rejected after he’d served just over half his time in office. I was in San Francisco for the recall and wrote about Boudin’s tenure and perceived failings in “Times Arrow” and “Another Step Backward,” and, for Reason, “Delusion on San Francisco Crime Will Get You Recalled.”
I’d seen Jenkins on “Real Time with Bill Maher,” where she explained why she’d quit the DA’s office under Boudin, and listened to her debate with law professor and Boudin supporter Laura Bazelon, at SF’s Commonwealth Club. I caught up with Jenkins several days before the recall, which she’d worked to promote, to find out why she thought Boudin should lose his job and what must be done to promote safety for the city’s citizens. Her answers, edited for length and clarity, may offer some insight as to what she will do differently, now that the job is hers.
Nancy: I thought Laura Bazelon made a good point during your Commonwealth debate, when she said, "Look, I understand that people are saying he's working more like a public defender, but he's got to take into account all of San Francisco. He's got to sort of work holistically." What did you think about that point?
Jenkins: I think I've always said that as a prosecutor, you obviously cannot just focus on the victim and the public, right? Those are your priorities, but incorporated into that is what is fair and just for the defendant. And you have to be able to look at all three of those factors when you decide how you're going to arrive at a resolution in a case, or what to do in a case, even whether to charge a case. The problem with Chesa is that he's only approaching it through the lens of the person charged, almost to the utter disregard of the two other factors. And so that's where I've taken an issue. As the district attorney's office, you have to account for public safety and for your obligation to be an advocate in the system for victims. And if you completely abdicate that responsibility, you're not fit to serve.
Boudin’s first order of business, when he got into office - and you were still there at this time - was to put out a mission statement saying the number one priority of the district attorney's office was to review all of the officer involved shootings and in-custody deaths and other unlawful uses of force. If that's your first mission statement out of the gate, you're setting up a pretty adversarial relationship with the police. Is that the DA's job?
Jenkins: So in my view, that certainly should not have been the number one priority. It certainly is a priority, to make sure that we are prosecuting everybody in this city who's committed a crime regardless of status or position or title. But I do believe that he set a tone. At his election night party, I don't know if you've seen the videos, but they began to chant, "Fuck the POA" [the San Francisco Police Officer's Association]. Pardon my language.
And so this started off day one, even before day one, with an antagonistic approach towards the police. It was never designed to be a positive working relationship. The police understand that the DA's office needs to investigate and decide whether or not to charge unlawful actions by officers. They have no issue with that. But when it becomes political, rather than just, what's just and fair and right, I think that's where you see the problem.
If we were in 2019 right now, or 2020 even, I don't think we would have seen the appetite to recall Boudin. What's changed in the city?
Jenkins: If you asked anybody on the street [in 2019], what is your primary issue with crime? They would tell you, "God help us, auto burglary. I've had to get my window fixed replaced three times in the last year." They would tell you that.
But now in 2022, the primary issue is residential burglary and home invasions. We saw that number skyrocket and people are saying, "Look, it's one thing for me to fix my window in my car. I know how to not leave items in plain view in my car. It's a whole other thing when my kids are in this house and somebody's coming in."
I also think the 567% surge in Asian hate crimes certainly affected the landscape here in San Francisco. As everybody knows, San Francisco is about 35% Asian. And to have to see on the news, our Asian elders need volunteer escorts to walk them to the grocery store, to the bus stop; that did something to people. That was real. We were seeing videos of these brutal assaults, day in and day out, in a city that it has been historically known as sort of their mecca here in the United States.
And I think the third is all of the attention on the fentanyl issue. The Tenderloin has been an issue for a long time. That's not new. But when we've got people slumped over, dying on the street day in and day out, I think people said, "Hold on a second." We can't just turn a blind eye to this the way that we've turned a blind eye to the Tenderloin for a long time.
And so I think it’s the intersection of those three things. I tell people this all the time: If Chesa had come out right away on any of those three issues and said, "Look, we are heavily focused now on making your safety a priority. We will do what it takes. We will hold people accountable," and if we saw that play out in the court system, I don't think he'd be here right now. But he took the attitude of, "No, it's just perception. No, the data tells us something different. No, statistics tell us crime is down. This is all in your minds. I don't want to criminalize poverty."
We had multiple Asian victims come out saying the DA's office hadn't used interpreters, or were sending people who had committed these violent assaults through diversion, all these things that were coming to light. And I think people just said, "This is not okay; this is not what we signed up for. " Only 36% of people gave him first place votes. So it wasn't like he had some mandate here to make some big splash.
I thought you made also a really good point during the Commonwealth debate that there is a mechanism in California that if someone is arrested on a drug charge, their immigration status must be taken into account, lest they be deported and sent home to face retribution or death at the hands of the drug cartels. There are going to be few people that are going to be, "Yes, send the dude back to Honduras to get murdered." But it also sets up a system where justice is not meted out fairly, it seems. What if it’s not Juan from Honduras but John from Schenectady? Is John going to receive the same treatment for the DA?
Jenkins: No. I spent three and a half years in our general felonies unit handling drug cases. And that's been an ongoing theme of mine. I'd say this to the public defenders, "Are you telling me that you're fine with giving Tyrone from the Bayview [neighborhood] a felony drug sales charge, but that I have to give this person from Honduras something less?” We can't be penalizing people for being citizens, either. It works both ways. My father is from El Salvador. He's not a citizen of this country. I actually was raised by a single mom because when I was born, he had to leave right after. He was only here on a student visa. So I fully understand immigration issues and my father coming from war torn country of El Salvador. [Boudin] is putting [non-citizen dealers] back out on the street with zero repercussions. A misdemeanor accessory after the fact is functionally nothing. You may as well just dismiss the case. Also, by putting them back out there with no consequence, he's doing nothing to help them change their lives.
If you want to prevent them from being deported, then you need to help put them in a position not to keep selling drugs and re-offending. He has the ability to create a particular court program, to give them vocational training, to help them establish themselves and get citizenship here in this country. He's doing nothing of the sort.
Even if you don't want to give them severe consequences, you've got to do something to get them off of the street and selling fentanyl and selling meth and heroin. And he's not doing there either. And I think that's his failure, is that we have San Franciscans dying every single day. And he's literally saying, “It doesn't matter.”
It seems like a triple failure. You're failing the dealers themselves. You're failing the person who is having their addiction abetted, which I understand is an issue Boudin and his supporters feel is inviolable; that neither the state nor citizens should have influence or opinion on people’s drug use. And you're failing the citizens of San Francisco. At the risk of sounding like a delicate flower, I don’t want Tyrone from Bayview or Jose from Honduras on the corner dealing drugs, and while I appreciate that we don’t want to exert dominion over people’s behavior, how is it ethical, or kind, to sit by and watch people on the nod or in the throes of dying?
Jenkins: Right. And Boudin’s been extremely tone deaf to that. If you go to the Tenderloin, there are, I think, four or five billboards up, quoting him out of a Washington Post article, where he said that he doesn't believe the families or the residents of the Tenderloin have any issue with drug dealing happening there. I mean, it's so tone deaf, you can't wrap your head around it. In his mind, he doesn't think they see it as a big deal. And even if we assume that to be true, which is crazy, what we all know is that from our census data, is that the Tenderloin is the home of the largest percentage of children in San Francisco. They shouldn't have to walk by people bent over doing fentanyl out of foil or slumped over high, or selling drugs. I was in the homicide unit when I resigned. The last few cases I got were in the Tenderloin and in the Mission, two places well-known for this open-air drug scene. One in particular that I can think of was drug-related. It was two drug dealers having it out over who could be where in the Tenderloin. Why should [residents] be riddled with having to hear gunshots and see all these things? It's just not right.
Boudin supporters claim his detractors are cherrypicking data in order to support his ouster. For instance, certain types of burglaries are up, but murder is not, whereas murder rates have skyrocketed in other major US cities. So, have things actually gotten under Boudin, and if they have, how much can we lay at his feet?
Jenkins: What I would say is this: he can't control independent action, right? He can't control necessarily trends in crime. But what he does have an obligation to do is serve as a deterrent. His obligation is to try to curtail whatever naturally is starting to occur in our communities. And that's what he's not doing. Can we blame him for every murder? No, we can't. People don't choose to murder in San Francisco because Chesa Boudin is the DA, right? They may choose to come here and steal because he's the DA, but they certainly don't factor that in the heat of passion when they're about to murder somebody. But we know because we've collected case after case, after case, that he's giving away the store on gun cases. They're getting diversion, they're getting misdemeanors. No jail time. No nothing. I'm hearing of a case now where even gun possession sometimes is going uncharged. And when you put people back out who are in possession of these firearms with no consequence for them to just go get another one, I do think that contributes to the violence we see on the streets. Gun possession and gun crimes are something we as a DA's office have to take extremely seriously. And if you are not, unfortunately those are the folks that end up shooting people.
My husband's cousin was murdered the summer of 2020. Chesa refused to charge that case when they were arrested, saying he wouldn't use gang charges, which everybody apparently believed were necessary. And that was another major red flag for me. I said to myself, it's one thing for him to be giving away cheap deals on property crimes. That's bad enough. But it's now murder cases he's going to be handling in this absurd way. We've got real problems on our hands.
Lara Bazelon, during the Commonwealth Club, said something along the lines of, "Why don't you just admit that you want the DA's job?" You’ve been one of the voices calling for Boudin to be recalled I thought I would ask it in another way: Is the job of San Francisco DA one that you want?
Jenkins: As I've said, it was my dream to prosecute murder cases. I was fully happy doing that, and would still be happy just doing that. This is about me being a voice where the people in the system that I signed up for seven years ago, who feel like right now, they have no voice. And because I felt that he was stifling me in the courtroom, I've had to become a public voice for it. But this is not my crusade to become the DA. To the contrary. I tell people who ask me that I've tried to recruit countless of my colleagues to do the same thing that I'm doing. If this was about me and only me and a spotlight on me, I wouldn't be doing that, tight? I'd be trying to make me be the only voice.
I trust the mayor to choose whoever she wants to be the appropriate leader in that office, based on the things she's expressed on how she views these issues. But no, this is not about me whatsoever.
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