Federal officers in S.F. watched a man OD outside Nancy Pelosi Federal Building. Why didn’t they step in?

Megan CassidyGabrielle Lurie

Sep. 26, 2023 (SFChronicle.com)

Two citizens try to save a man who was overdosing on Mission Street near Seventh Street in San Francisco on Tuesday, Sept. 19, as a Federal Protective Service officer stands over them. The man survived the overdose, and paramedics arrived to administer emergency care. 
Two citizens try to save a man who was overdosing on Mission Street near Seventh Street in San Francisco on Tuesday, Sept. 19, as a Federal Protective Service officer stands over them. The man survived the overdose, and paramedics arrived to administer emergency care. Gabrielle Lurie/The Chronicle

Last week, on a sidewalk just steps away from the towering Speaker Nancy Pelosi Federal Building at Seventh and Market streets, a commonplace horror was unfolding in the middle of the workday: Someone overdosed.

Two civilians — one of whom rushed from his nearby tent — swooped in to administer chest compressions and Narcan, a medicine that can reverse an opioid overdose. Paramedics arrived within minutes and wheeled a dazed but breathing man into an ambulance.

The scene was perhaps more remarkable, though, for what didn’t happen. As civilians worked desperately to revive the man, who convulsed and threw his head back into the pavement in response to the medication, five officers with the Federal Protective Service standing within feet of him looked on. 

“(They did) nothing,” said Michael Walker, one of the two people who administered Narcan to the man before paramedics arrived, in an interview the following day from his tent across the street. “If I didn’t run over there, that boy would have died.” 

The inaction, which was witnessed and recorded by Chronicle journalists, raises questions about why officers deployed to an area so rife with drug problems that some federal employees have been advised to work from home, wouldn’t perform basic, lifesaving measures.

When one of the federal officers at the scene was asked why they didn’t intervene, he said they weren’t allowed to, and that they didn’t carry Narcan. They did, however, assist emergency responders in securing the victim to the stretcher, and a spokesperson for the Federal Protective Service said they called for the ambulance.   

The spokesperson said in an email that the agency “is in the process of ensuring inspectors are equipped with naloxone and trained in how to administer the prescription drug when necessary,” referring to the generic name for Narcan.  

The spokesperson said that while federal inspectors are trained with CPR and first aid, “others were already administering CPR and Narcan when the responding FPS officer arrived” to the Sept. 19 overdose. 

“A total of five officers responded, secured the scene and worked with Emergency Medical Services to secure the man for transport,” the spokesperson said.

Employees for local public safety agencies including San Francisco’s police and fire departments, and sheriff’s office, have for years been outfitted with Narcan kits. Even as the opioid epidemic is on track to kill a record number of people this year, experts say that figure would be exponentially higher if it wasn’t for the prevalence of Narcan.

Between January and July of this year, emergency medical crews have responded to at least 146 suspected overdoses in the block surrounding the Federal Building, according to data provided by the San Francisco Fire Department. The data includes responses from both San Francisco emergency crews and other ambulance companies, but not overdoses that were aided by a private citizen. 

While FPS officers have long policed federal buildings in San Francisco and across the U.S., their presence at the Federal Building has been noticeably larger in the last several weeks. It’s now standard to see at least five police cars lining the block and upward of a dozen officers patrolling the perimeter. 

Federal officials have not publicly commented on the boosted deployment, but one of the officers said it was in response to news that officials with the Department of Health and Human Services, one of the tenants at the building, had advised its employees to work from home due to the unsafe conditions outside. 

In an Aug. 4 memo obtained by the Chronicle, HHS Assistant Secretary for Administration Cheryl Campbell recommended employees at the building “maximize the use of telework for the foreseeable future.” 

Walker, the man who helped to revive the victim last week and often goes by the nickname Frosty, questioned why the officers didn’t at least perform CPR, even if they didn’t carry Narcan. 

District 6 Supervisor Matt Dorsey, who represents the portion of the city that includes the building, said he reached out to the director of the city’s Office of Overdose Prevention to ensure that the city would coordinate with federal authorities if they needed Narcan supplies or training. 

“I don’t know whether it’s the case that federal protective officers aren’t trained in it, but it can pretty much be learned in a few minutes,” Dorsey said. 

Dorsey, who last month criticized federal authorities for the work-from-home recommendation, credited federal authorities for stepping up their efforts to police the troubled areas. 

“I am grateful we’re in a situation where multiple agencies, from multiple levels of government, are putting more skin in the game,” he said. 

Reach Megan Cassidy: megan.cassidy@sfchronicle.com. Reach Gabrielle Lurie: glurie@sfchronicle.com

Written By Megan Cassidy

Megan Cassidy is a crime reporter with The Chronicle, also covering cops, criminal justice issues and mayhem. Previously, Cassidy worked for the Arizona Republic covering Phoenix police, Sheriff Joe Arpaio and desert-area crime and mayhem. She is a two-time graduate of the University of Missouri, and has additionally worked at the Casper Star-Tribune, National Geographic and an online publication in Buenos Aires. Cassidy can be reached on twitter at @meganrcassidy, and will talk about true crime as long as you’ll let her.

Written By Gabrielle Lurie

Gabrielle Lurie is one of the newest Chronicle staff members. Raised in Washington D.C, Gabrielle Lurie picked up a camera at 17-years old. She moved to New York City where she continued to photograph and study art history at New York University. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, LA Times and The Guardian. She has covered a variety of events ranging from politics to the homeless crisis.

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