On Oct. 24, 2021, the San Francisco Chronicle published an interview that would single-handedly transform the city’s political landscape. The subject was Brooke Jenkins, who was leaving the office of the city’s progressive prosecutor, Chesa Boudin, charging him with incompetence, ideological rigidity and blatant mismanagement.
“The D.A.’s office now is a sinking ship. It’s like the Titanic, and it’s taking public safety along with it,” Jenkins told the Chronicle. She also announced that she was joining a campaign for the ballot measure that, if ratified by voters, would remove Boudin and allow Mayor London Breed to name a replacement.
A Black and Latina woman who is native to the Bay Area, Jenkins became the public face of the Boudin recall effort, which gained nationwide attention as a referendum on progressive criminal justice reform.
The effort by recall opponents to depict the opposition to Boudin as a Republican putsch failed to convince voters in this overwhelmingly liberal city. In June, San Franciscans ousted Boudin by a wide margin. Several weeks later, Breed appointed Jenkins as his replacement. And just days ago, Jenkins announced that she intends to run for a full term in 2022, when Boudin would have been seeking reelection.
San Francisco, a city where African Americans make up less than 6% of the population, now has three Black leaders: Breed, Jenkins and Police Chief William Scott. But the city they oversee is beset with challenges, from empty office towers to some downtown streets littered with hypodermic needles. If nothing else, Boudin, with his privileged background and awkward political style, made for an easy scapegoat.
His detractors finally have all the power they sought for two years to wrest from him. What will they do with it? Jenkins has vowed to work more closely with police, prosecute quality-of-life offenses, go after repeat offenders and stem the scourge of hard drugs. Those are enormously ambitious objectives that Jenkins does not have much time to accomplish: Jenkins has to run in November to simply hold her job for the remainder of what would have been Boudin’s first term, and then again in November 2023 if she wants a full term of her own.
“We hope to see changes immediately on the street,” Jenkins told Yahoo News in a recent phone conversation. She says that people are already “starting to feel safer” now that Boudin is gone and his adversarial attitude toward policing is presumably no longer in place. “For two and half years, they’ve been completely ignored,” she says of ordinary San Franciscans, who before expelling Boudin from office offered a hint of how deep their political frustration had become by recalling three school board members who had embarked on ideological crusades of their own. “They just want to be heard.”
Yahoo News first met with Jenkins in February, in the midst of Boudin’s recall campaign. Over lunch in Chinatown, she expressed unvarnished dismay at what San Francisco was becoming, a Fox News punch line about liberalism run amok.
“I think his overall objectives are noble,” she said of Boudin at the time. “The way that he’s achieving them is reckless. And it’s dangerous.”
Jenkins spoke with Yahoo News a second time in July, after she had been in office for several weeks. “I walked into an office that I knew had a lot of issues,” she said, justifying early personnel decisions that, while necessary from her point of view, have engendered no small amount of controversy.
One of Boudin’s first moves in 2020 had been to fire seven prosecutors, in what some worried was an ideological purge that would hamper the office. Jenkins did much the same when she took over, firing 15 of Boudin’s top staffers. Many of them have taken to complaining to progressive outlets that had been favorably disposed to Boudin.
“I came to DA Boudin’s office to fight for criminal justice reform; that battle has never been more urgent,” Rachel Marshall, Boudin’s former spokesperson who was fired by Jenkins, told the Intercept. “There is no question that DA Jenkins’s approach differs dramatically from my values.”
Boudin has eagerly amplified their complaints, recently using a flame emoji — frequently used to indicate a fiery argument worthy of approval — to retweet Marshall. “DA Jenkins uses progressive rhetoric to mask a regressive criminal justice approach,” Marshall’s message read. “It’s not ‘progressive’ to call for increased ‘consequences’ (read: incarceration) for property crimes or more ‘accountability’ (read: incarceration) for drugs.”
“I don’t pay Twitter any attention,” says Jenkins, who makes no disguise of her dislike for Boudin. “He is entitled to have the feelings that he has. I am just here to do the work. Period.” (Boudin did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Yahoo News.)
Much like Eric Adams, the former New York City police officer who earlier this year became the city’s mayor, Jenkins dismissed Twitter discourse as the domain of elites who are removed from everyday concerns. “I am a Black and Latina woman who was raised in the Bay Area. I know — not from reading in a book or hearing it in a college classroom — the plight of people of color in this country,” Jenkins told Yahoo News.
“Police brutality has always been real to me. Quite honestly, I did not grow up trusting the police,” she adds. “I’ve watched my uncle, as a kid, being racially profiled.”
Boudin’s relationship with Scott, the police chief, deteriorated into a series of recriminations, as many worried it was bound to. Boudin blamed the department for making too few arrests; the department — and the combative police union, in particular — charged Boudin with failing to prosecute cases. In early February, Scott terminated a cooperative agreement with the district attorney’s office, a sign that his exasperation with Boudin (which Breed is widely known to have shared) had reached its zenith.
“It is our duty, our obligation, to work with other law enforcement agencies,” Jenkins says. But she also rejects the notion that she wants to return to an era when police and prosecutors worked in tandem, without any attention to civil liberties. “I want my lawyers to know that if they read something in a police report that doesn’t sit right, that they can go to management and have a conversation about that.”
Charges that she will encourage the overpolicing of minority neighborhoods and push for onerous sentencing are “inaccurate and unfair,” says Jenkins, the first Black woman to hold the office of San Francisco district attorney since Vice President Kamala Harris did between 2004 and 2011. Jenkins said her primary goal was to restore order to an office that had been so poorly managed in its day-to-day operations that a judge once denounced Boudin from the bench.
“People want competence.” Jenkins said. “They want people who care. There’s a lot we could have been doing that just wasn’t being done.”
And she argues that the wave of early dismissals was necessary to restore trust in the office. “Most of the management consisted of people who had no prosecutorial experience,” she says of Boudin’s top deputies, most of whom shared his ideological outlook but seemed, like the district attorney himself, to lack experience in prosecuting cases.
“Yes they were competent and capable and respectable public defenders,” Jenkins added. “But the problem was, they were not experienced prosecutors.”
A graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Chicago’s law school, Jenkins joined the San Francisco district attorney’s office in 2014 to work for George Gascón. Widely seen as a progressive, Gascón left for Los Angeles in 2019, setting up the election that Boudin narrowly won that year.
“I’m not going to throw away what I learned from Gascón,” Jenkins said of the L.A. district attorney. “I thrived working for George.” (Gascón, who has moved significantly leftward on matters of criminal justice since leaving San Francisco, now faces a recall initiative of his own.)
“Criminal reform didn’t start, and it won’t end, with Chesa,” Jenkins says, describing Boudin as a “white man raised in wealth.”
After his parents, members of the Weather Underground, went to prison in 1981 for a botched heist that led to three deaths, Boudin was raised by wealthy Chicago radicals Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn. He attended Yale University and traveled in South America, compiling his experience in a book that earned a famously withering review from the New York Times.
Jenkins, by contrast, is from the hardscrabble Bay Area suburb of Union City. “I know what it’s like to be raised by a single mother,” she told Yahoo News, describing what it was like to be dragged to food pantries and thrift stores. “I get that struggle, and I get working against being a statistic. That informs the way that I do this work.”
In 2020, her husband’s cousin Jerome Mallory was killed in a shooting in the Bayview section of San Francisco, which has long suffered from municipal neglect. She and others have argued that progressive criminal justice reforms do little for Black and brown communities plagued by crime.
“Those are the people who are suffering. It’s not people high up on the hill who can pontificate about racial disparities, which they never experienced,” Jenkins says of San Francisco’s famous topography. Hilltop neighborhoods like Pacific Heights tower over the rest of the city. For the wealthy in Victorian mansions and glass apartment towers, the plight of the poor and neglected can be all too easy to forget.
Jenkins never had the luxury. “They shouldn’t have to live that way,” she says. She also promises to do better by the city’s influential Chinese American community, which often felt slighted by Boudin. Chinese-language voters proved crucial to both the Boudin and school board recalls and will surely be central to Jenkins’s own prospects.
“There will be clear accountability,” Jenkins says. “They will be heard.”
On Sunday, a group of activists staged a rally after two attacks against Asian seniors, one of whom had been a former city commissioner. Meanwhile, fentanyl continues to pour into the Bay Area. Jenkins has promised to be much tougher on drug dealers in comparison to Boudin, who frustrated police officers by demanding they bring him “kilos, not crumbs.” But in every respect, she will be hamstrung by time, not to mention the city’s famously permissive culture.
“Yes, we are a city of compassion. Yes, we are a city of second chances,” she said. But she refuses to allow San Francisco to become the city of dystopian conservative nightmare. “That’s not who we are.”