Letter: SF Public Defender Opposes Police Staffing Plan

Dear Supervisors Dorsey, Walton, and Safai:

On Monday during the Rules Committee meeting, you will vote on whether to approve the proposed amendment to the City Charter, titled “Minimum Police Department Staffing and Five-Year Annual Funding Requirement,” that would restore minimum police staffing levels, create a five-year funding requirement, and establish a “Police Full Staffing Fund.” The legislation is regressive and is an attempt, along with other efforts, to give SFPD free rein to police as it sees fit, plainly ignoring the fact that SFPD was directed by the United States Department of Justice and then the California Department of Justice to implement significant changes to its practices. I therefore strongly recommend you reconsider this measure, vote “no,” and do not place it on the ballot.

A Solution in Search of a Problem

To start, (1) the legislation is inflexible, lacks clear metrics and accountability, and effectively gives SFPD unprecedented access to the City’s coffers at a time when the City is projecting a $780MM budget deficit1 while the Mayor has directed city departments to cut their budgets mid-year. (2) The legislation locks the City into specific staffing increases—i.e., 100 additional officers annually for the next five years—without explaining why those proposed increases are justified beyond the broad, previously challenged (3) claim that SFPD is understaffed.

Moreover, this legislation, without new evidence, directly undermines the express will of voters who just three years ago passed Prop E to remove the minimum staffing levels with more than 70% support. (4) Voters then knew what we still know: having a fixed number of officers is “detached from financial or social reality” (5) and a “hard-and-fast number [of officers] shouldn’t be the rule.” (6) Dropping the set minimum number of officers was an “obvious change that the city should have made years ago.” (7) Board President Norman Yee was right to say that the city should use “a thoughtful process for determining police staffing levels” and should “remove the handcuffs that this mandatory minimum staffing requirement” places on San Franciscans.

(8) The ballot initiative also fails to explain why SFPD response times have gotten worse long before the supposed staffing crisis: “The police department has consistently missed its goals for response times on all manner of calls, and is missing them by more every year. And that was the case even before money and personnel issues grew dire.” (9) That mirrors other anecdotal evidence where civilians have noted (10) and complained (11) that officers simply are not doing their jobs, (12) which has [at best] little to do with how many officers SFPD employs. The data also suggests that SFPD is ineffective at solving property crimes as the “general pattern over the past 10 years is a steady, gradual decline in property crime clearance rates, irrespective of police [staffing levels].” (13) Why should a department with this track record continue to be the beneficiary of the public’s money? This legislation is a solution to a different problem while ignoring the issues currently plaguing this department.

Little Meaningful Oversight or Accountability

How should SFPD manage this windfall should the legislation be adopted by City voters? The legislation is entirely silent. Instead, the legislation orders the Police Commission—the entity tasked under the City Charter to set the policy and direction for SFPD—to blindly accept SFPD’s budgetary requests and to limit any reductions to SFPD’s budget to no more than 5% absent a two-thirds vote. This legislation should be seen in the context of other efforts to weaken the Commission, paint it as a driving force behind the serious issues impacting San Francisco, and remove key oversight and accountability for a department that has long required it.

Similarly, the proposed “Fund” provides SFPD with open-ended discretion to spend precious public resources on “recruitment and hiring efforts, advertising, development and administration of hiring strategies, and funding hiring incentive for new police officers.” Conspicuously, the legislation is silent on metrics to measure effectiveness, whether SFPD is required to explain how it used the funds, or what it used the funds on. It is also fair to wonder if this fund will be used for other purposes such as creating a reality show about SFPD officers for “advertising” purposes.

(14) These efforts are aimed at allowing the police to, in effect, police themselves. They have done nothing to earn that privilege.

Throwing Good Money After Bad

The Board should be skeptical of allowing SFPD to govern its own affairs and of continuing to invest huge sums of public funds into a department with a track record of misconduct. Just recently, several officers were accused of falsifying traffic stop data, (15) which may show that SFPD’s already inexcusable racial disparities in stops, searches, and seizures are underreported. During the pandemic, dozens of officers were fired because they refused to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, (16) raising serious questions about whether SFPD’s staffing crisis is, in part, self-made. Since 2016, SFPD has stashed dozens of problem officers away who cannot perform their Charter duty to “preserve the public peace, prevent and detect crime, and protect the rights of persons and property” in so-called “rubber rooms” while the City has paid upwards of $16MM in salary for those officers. (17) Similarly, the City has paid $70MM to settle claims against SFPD officers. None of this money comes from SFPD’s budget. Perhaps it should.

Adding more officers with a weakened oversight and accountability systems is a recipe to waste more public funds. A retired SFPD veteran put it this way:

“Forty years ago, when I became a cop, the job had a better rep, cops had more autonomy and less accountability. That’s not a good thing, but there was an attraction there. When I was a rookie cop, we knew we could get away with whatever we wanted. And we did.”

(18) We cannot return to that San Francisco.

Falling into Old, Bad Habits

Instead of inflating an already large department—and particularly in the current economic climate—the City should reinvigorate its search for more effective and cost-efficient alternatives to policing. (19) With a claimed officer shortfall and small academy classes, an immediate way to reduce officer workload while preserving transparency and accountability is enacting policies such as the limitation on pretext stops. According to detailed analysis conducted by SPUR, SFPD conducts tens of thousands of stops for minor infractions such as broken taillights but rarely recovers contraband. (20) To further reduce burdens on officer time, instead of creating more time through increased staffing, invest in evidence-based alternatives to policing via a “Community Violence Intervention” model. (21) Importantly, such models are overwhelmingly popular with the public as an alternative to police-only interventions. (22) Or consider Denver’s approach to mental health calls for service: sending mental health specialists instead of police to address substance use and nonviolent emergencies reduced some crimes by as much as 34%. (23) San Francisco can follow their lead and expand our Street Crisis Response Teams so that we can provide care 24/7.

The City should remain focused on addressing the root causes of crime—housing, job, education, and healthcare insecurity—and not on solutions that worsen public safety. Study after study shows that creating supportive housing reduces arrests for offenses associated with experiencing homelessness. (24) The same is true of investing in underserved communities by providing job opportunities and access to healthcare. Given the challenging environment to hire officers nationwide as noted criminologist Jeff Asher has observed, (25) investing in alternatives is altogether more important.

Our community thrives when we put people first, not economic interests enforced by an armed-to-the-teeth police department. While the legislation speaks to lofty goals, it is woefully short on details explaining why an increase in SFPD is justified, why this level of increase is justified, and why alternatives should be eschewed in favor of continued investment in a scandal-plagued department. Consequently, I urge you to vote NO on this legislation today.

Respectfully Submitted,

Brian Cox
Director, Integrity Unit
San Francisco Public Defender’s Office

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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