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SFPD chief to supervisors: ‘We need your support’

At a hearing about the San Francisco Police Department’s budget, Police Chief Bill Scott told members of the Board of Supervisors that the department is shrinking and requested funding for staff, technology and training. 

The police department expects to lose 111 officers between fiscal year 2021 and 2022, and another 80 in the year following, according to Scott. As part of Mayor London Breed’s budget proposal, SFPD is requesting a total budget of $661 million for next fiscal year—a decrease of about $6 million compared to this year’s—followed by a budget of $689 million the year following. 

Scott said that the funding is necessary for the department to carry out what the public expects of it—including a federal reform initiative launched in 2016—and to make investments in officer recruitment, training, technology and civilian staff to improve efficiency and comply with public records requests. 

“Our asks center around how we can make things like [retail crime] better, and not have our city be the face of chaos,” said Scott at the hearing on Thursday. “And it really starts with staffing, and not only just staffing, but us doing the jobs the right way.” 

Earlier in the day, Scott appeared on CNN to discuss organized retail crime following a viral video showing a theft in a Walgreens. 

According to Scott, about 500 of SFPD’s roughly 1,780 sworn officers are eligible for retirement. In addition, the department is short about 70 civilian employees, which he said are needed “just to get us in compliance with things like our transparency law that was mandated with the passage of [SB 1421]. We have public records requests that we can’t even get to.” Enacted in 2020, California’s SB 1421 expanded the range of police misconduct records that must be disclosed, and SFPD reported a backlog of more than 18,000 requests. 

“We wind up having to put officers in those seats responding to requests, and that’s not an efficient use of taxpayer dollars,” said Scott. SFPD’s budget requests include $18 million for technology in fiscal 2023, a figure that includes funding for a major overhaul of the department’s records management system.

“We don’t have anything to hide. We’re an open book, we want to get better, but we need your support to do that,” Scott said.  

In 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice launched a review of SFPD in the wake of several high-profile police shootings, and issued 272 recommendations for reform, which ranged from improving data collection on use-of-force incidents to de-escalation training. To date, the department has completed 253 of the 272 recommendations.

The department says it is also undertaking internal reforms aimed at boosting diversity and inclusion in its ranks, and Scott pointed to increased diversity among its newer recruits. SFPD’s 2020 academy class was 22% Hispanic, 29% Asian, 15% Black and 9% Filipino, according to police data. 

As part of a local reform effort, announced by Breed in July 2020, the city is seeking to shift responsibilities for some street-level incidents, such as behavioral health crises, to other agencies. At Thursday’s hearing, Supervisor Dean Preston asked why the police budget wasn’t smaller given the introduction of alternative safety programs: “I hope we’ll take a bold approach with that,” he said. 

Scott responded that he is in favor of “right-sizing” SFPD as alternative programs are rolled out, but that it is too early to know how exactly those alternatives correspond with police funding. Officer training and development, which takes officers out of the field, must also be accounted for, according to Scott. 

Asked by Supervisor Gordon Mar how alternative programs will affect future staffing levels, Scott said that he “[wants] to see it work” and that the success of those would allow police to better address issues like retail theft and gun crimes. 

“We have identified 23 different categories of calls that we believe can be reinvisioned, and we’re working with the Mayor’s Office on that,” Scott said. “Somebody has to accept that work, and whoever accepts that work has to have the capability to do it…I hope we have those conversations about who has the capacity and what it’s going to take.” 

Pending budget approval, many of the alternative public safety programs will be focused on downtown and adjacent areas. 

In the Tenderloin, Civic Center and Mid-Market neighborhoods, the city is expected to fund teams of unarmed “community ambassadors” provided by a nonprofit called Urban Alchemy to help respond to street-level complaints.

In the Union Square area, Breed is requesting funding for another pool of ambassadors that are largely retired police officers. Those ambassadors are trained to act as a friendly presence, helping to steer people in need to services and cultivate a more welcoming environment.