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Politics & Policy

Supervisors may be skirting law with latest swipe at retail crime

In the wake of a brazen retail crime spree in Union Square, city supervisors voted to approve a legislation Tuesday that will effectively allow off-duty sheriffs deputies to work security for retail companies in San Francisco. The decision came despite some supervisors raising concerns that the proposal could run afoul of state law.

Supervisor Ahsha Safai presented the measure as a “spoke in the wheel of justice” to deter retail crime. The resolution mirrors an existing city code that only applied to off–duty SFPD officers, and the two agencies have 60 days to present city officials with their plan to divvy up the work. 

Supervisor Dean Preston, who was joined by two colleagues in opposing the measure, expressed concern that the legislation could violate state law, which only allows private entities to hire individuals to provide security for events or on other special occasions. He also expressed concerns the city may already be violating state law by allowing retailers to hire off-duty police officers through the 10B program.

“We have three decades of attorney general opinions and state law saying you can’t do this,” Preston said. “I find it perhaps more alarming if the city and county of San Francisco, through the 10B program, has been violating that state law.” 

City Code 10B allows off–duty police officers to work as private security for any company or individual. The SF police officer’s union has in the past opposed allowing sheriff’s deputies to do the same, but San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott said Tuesday that the two agencies came together on this issue because SFPD was “unable to meet the demand” of businesses seeking security. 

In November, Professor Lara Bazelon at the USF school of law questioned the legality of Safai’s measure, citing a 1985 ruling by the Attorney General. 

“This precedent and the plain language of the statute calls the legality of the proposed ordinance into doubt,” Bazelon said in the letter. “In my opinion, the ordinance exceeds the scope of what is permissible under the law.”

Deputy city attorney Anne Pearson said the wording of the ordinance complied with state law.

Supervisor Hillary Ronen, who ultimately voted in favor of the measure, warned of its potential effect on a depleted sheriff’s force that is struggling to adequately staff courts and jails. 

“There are about 400 criminal cases that have surpassed the constitutional right to a speedy trial in the courts of San Francisco,” Ronen said. “I worry that there won’t be deputies available because of this program.”

Sherrif Deputy Paul Miyamoto, who admitted that the department is understaffed, said the new amendment won’t affect their presence in other parts of the city since it will only apply to off-duty officers. 

Safai said the new law will empower retailers to protect themselves from organized retail theft organizations, such as the group that burglarized Union Square on Nov. 19. 

“When we heard that San Francisco was one of the epicenters for organized retail crime, we knew we had to act, and we knew we had to act swiftly,” Safai said.