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Explainer: Will community policing make San Francisco safer?

San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott (left) bids goodbye with an elbow bump to Coalition for Community Safety and Justice Anthony Tong (second from right), outreach, and Wallace Fung (right), victim service support in Portsmouth Square at the end of a press event. | Lea Suzuki/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

On the same day that San Francisco voters decisively chose to recall District Attorney Chesa Boudin and as public safety concerns linger in the minds of many residents, the Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a law to advance what it calls a “community policing plan.” 

But what exactly is community policing? And, based on the legislation that recently passed, what would it look like in San Francisco?

Building Trust Between Police and Residents

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, community policing emphasizes “partnerships” between law enforcement and civilian groups to figure out how to prevent crime and quell fears of social disorder in neighborhoods. 

The goal, per the DOJ, is to “develop solutions to problems and increase trust in police.”

What’s New About This Latest Plan?

In San Francisco, the police department launched a community policing strategy in 2018 in response to federal advisories to invest in such strategies. 

But the new law passed this past week provides more details for how to actually implement those approaches. Some of the directives in the works here include: 

  • Deploying foot and bike patrol officers around 10 district stations throughout the city
  • Making sure residents in each district can access services in various languages
  • Creating a public process for eliciting “community input” from neighborhood groups, leaders, small businesses, nonprofits, school groups
  • Publicly posting community policing plans and updating them on an annual basis
SFPD and Public Works clear a homeless encampment outside San Francisco Ferry Building the morning of Friday, June 3, 2022, in front of the Ferry Building in San Francisco, Calif. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

Can Community Policing Help SFPD Solve and Prevent More Crimes?

Supervisor Gordon Mar, who led the community policing legislation that passed last week, noted that SFPD clearance rates have sunk to historic lows, and that he views community policing as a way to reverse that trend.

“The best response to crime is preventing it before it can happen,” he said in introducing his proposal, “and this law is an important step forward to make our neighborhoods safer.” 

Proponents also say community policing can prevent crimes by making officers more visible in neighborhoods and promoting positive interactions with residents. 

Currently, as part of its community policing efforts, SFPD focuses on events to build relationships with civilians, such as coffee klatches, movie nights, street fairs and holiday turkey and pumpkin giveaways.

Some districts offer their own spin on such outreach events, such as one at Central Station in which officers take students from Francisco Middle School out fishing.

‘A Stronger Voice’ for Neighborhoods?

Kevin Benedicto, a new police commissioner, said he’s sure such plans will make police more effective in the neighborhoods they patrol because they require public input. 

“The community has long sought to have a stronger voice in how their neighborhoods are policed,” he said.

What’s Next?

How the plan shakes out—especially with SFPD reporting a staffing shortage—remains uncertain. The department says it’s about 350 sworn officers short of what it needs to tackle crime in the city. 

Until the department figures out how to bolster those numbers, it’s unclear how many officers it could deploy to boost foot and bike patrols as part of its community policing plan. Mayor London Breed has proposed to boost the law enforcement budget to help recruit.

Meanwhile, the city has until Jan. 1 to submit its district-by-district community policing plans.

Han Li can be reached at

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