Interim District Attorney Brooke Jenkins faced her three challengers Tuesday night in the first in-person debate before next month’s election, and all three challengers relished in pointing out that crime is up during her thus-far short tenure.
District Attorney Brooke Jenkins was appointed in July, but still has to face the voters in the upcoming November 8 election. She’s got three challengers running against her, so the four candidates had their first in-person debate with a crowd present, billed as a “candidate forum,” on Tuesday night. They had a previous Zoom debate last month, but with no raucous audience as they did last night, the loudest of whom had clearly already made up their minds.
“There shall be no grandstanding,” dean of the University of San Francisco School of Law declared Susan Freiwald declared before the debate started. Of course there was grandstanding! You can watch the full video of the debate below (it starts with 13 minutes of dead air, and regrettably, there were audio issues galore), but we’ll sum up the nearly two-hour debate if you don’t have time to watch.
Predictably, the hot topics were SFPD security camera surveillance, the ongoing non-closure of juvenile hall, and SFPD’s ongoing “police did nothing” narrative. But the three challengers, former police commissioner John Hamasaki, former police and fire department commissioner Joe Alioto Veronese, and private attorney Maurice Chenier, all ripped Jenkins over alleged ethical issues, failure to bring hate crime charges, and a sense that her office is not run competently.
Jenkins seemed to still be running against Chesa Boudin (a strategy which may be politically smart), and invoked him repeatedly with phrases like “The DA’s office effectively decriminalized the sale of drugs for the last two and a half years,” “I’ve watched as certain things here have been decriminalized by the DA’s office,” and “there has been selective enforcement of laws by our DA’s office.”
She reiterated that she would charge fentanyl dealers with murder, and vowed to be an advocate for “those who have yet to be victims.”
But her opponents generally drove well in their own lanes. Hamasaki hammered flaws in SFPD conduct and repeatedly accused Jenkins of focusing on “politics and press releases.” Alioto Veronese showed more retail political skills than another recent DA, and was very polished on the microphone. Chenier was perhaps not as polished on the microphone, twice using the term “draconian” in a positive sense (“I will be draconian on racial animus,” “They are draconian in San Mateo, they don’t tolerate the excuses.”)
Whereas Alioto Veronese and Hamasaki both contrasted Jenkins’s tough talk with allegations that she’s a lousy prosecutor. “We have bad prosecutors,” Alito Veronese said. Hamasaki, for his part, said that “They don’t put together good cases here,” and “It’s easy to try a case in San Francisco against this office in its current state.”
And both pounced on a recent SFGate report noting that crime is actually up under Jenkins’s thus-far brief tenure. “Crime is up in the last four months, by the way,“ Alioto Veronese pointed out. “It is true that violent crime has shot up since the recent appointment,” according to Hamasaki.
Hamasaki was the first to draw blood on the recent state bar complaint over Jenkins’s alleged dishonest conduct. “Now we’re sitting on a situation where we have an administration that has just had an ethical complaint filed by a judge, that has had an appellate decision against them for prosecutorial misconduct, that has had allegations of coaching child witnesses, that has had sustained allegations of withholding discovery,” he railed, drawing jeers from Jenkins’s supporters, something he seemed to enjoy.
When discussing complaints on SFPD inaction and very low arrest rates, he noted articles by “very centrist journalist Heather Knight,” which also drew jeers and laughter from people who did not agree with that assessment of the Chronicle reporter. He shot back well at that, by calling out that it was Knight “that actually gave our interim district attorney her debut,” referring to a flattering profile Knight wrote during the recall campaign,
And you can draw your own conclusions about what Hamasaki meant when he criticized Jenkins’s “connections to the most corrupt administration in the history of San Francisco.”
Alioto Veronese threaded a pretty good needle by emphasizing his own police-force experience and understanding of the force, but fiercely critiquing SFPD’s excesses. And he unloaded on the case of the alleged serial stalker Bill Gene Hobbs, which Jenkins is trying to sell as a win for her office. But Alioto Veronese was happy to point out that Jenkins had previously declined to charge Hobbs twice. “We have an administration that lives in an alternative reality,” he said. “She doesn’t understand what it’s like to walk the streets of San Francisco.”
And on hate crimes, Alioto Veronese pointed out, “This current DA hasn’t charged a hate crime yet. What message is that sending?”
Jenkins defended her record on that one. “We have an ethical obligation to not charge something we can’t prove beyond a reasonable doubt,” she said. “We cannot charge things simply because it’s politically cute to do so. We have to make sure that we are only charging people with the actual crimes that they committed.”
And on her controversial charging teenagers as adults for certain crimes, she said, “There is an exception for 16- and 17-year-olds who commit very egregious or heinous crimes, that we will consider the need to have them transitioned to adult court. That is founded in the fact that we have an obligation to protect the public.”
“Children do not belong in cages. It is destructive to their youth,” Hamasaki shot back. “We need to start treating children like children and adults like adults.”
Alioto Veronese was also critical, saying, “We have an obligation that we don’t put our children into a system that they end up in for the rest of their lives. That’s the criminal justice system that we have here today.”
And he was most animated against expanding SFPD access to video surveillance cameras. “If it requires a warrant, go get a warrant,” Alioto Veronese fumed. “Go do a little legwork as a police officer or a DA investigator, or a DA. Go get a warrant. I’ve gotten dozens of them when I was a DA investigator.”
Jenkins argued surveillance data was a necessary tool. “Our jurors want video evidence. San Francisco jurors are, in fact, the toughest jurors to try a case in front of,” she said, adding that video can also exonerate innocent people
Hamasaki was unimpressed, noting SFPD had broken previous laws with surveilling Black Lives Matter protests with the cameras. They weren’t able to follow the first [set of rules]. They broke the law there,” he said. “It’s mass surveillance and it does not make us any safer.”
As for Chenier, he did not always make a ton of linear sense. Consider this from his opening statement: “Go buy an apple. Any criminal. Take a bite of that apple. Because that’s the last free bite at crime you're going to get if I’m elected district attorney. I’m not playing. I don't have to convince anyone because I myself am convinced.” He also described the city saying, “This is an abyss, like a zombie-land”
In her closing statement, Jenkins drew whoops and hollers from her supporters declaring “I’m the only one who’s done the job.” But the thing is, she’s never been elected to do the job. And her three challengers Tuesday night will spend the next three weeks trying to make sure she isn’t elected to the job.
Image: SFGovTV via Youtube