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Politics & Policy

Police cameras, chases and drones: Mayor London Breed announces 2024 ballot measure to fight crime

A woman in a red coat appears pensive beside a blurred man in police uniform.
Mayor London Breed, left, listens to San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott, right, at a press conference on Jan. 25, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard | Source: Camille Cohen/The Standard

Mayor London Breed will ask voters to pass a ballot measure next March that would give police new surveillance powers and allow officers to catch car break-in crews by flying drones and engaging them in vehicle pursuits.

Breed announced her plans at a press conference at Alamo Square, a San Francisco landmark where auto burglars frequently prey on unsuspecting tourists who leave their luggage behind in rental cars.

The announcement marks the latest escalation in a war Breed is waging against the Police Commission, a civilian oversight body tasked with holding officers accountable and setting police policy, which she says has been co-opted by ideologues.

The mayor blamed the Police Commission for making officers do too much paperwork when it comes to reporting uses of force, which she said keeps them off the streets. She also targeted the vehicle pursuit policy last revised by the Police Commission in 2013, which prevents officers from chasing property crime suspects except when an individual poses an immediate risk to public safety.

“We need to give our officers the tools necessary to keep our communities safe and not leave them stuck behind a desk when they can be out on the street helping people,” Breed said in a statement. “There has been too much focus on adding bureaucracy to the work our officers do and putting up barriers to new technologies that can help improve policing in San Francisco. It’s time to change that.”

Breed’s proposal would let SFPD install cameras on public property to “advance safety needs,” at the discretion of Police Chief Bill Scott, and allow the department to fly drones, including to chase auto burglary suspects and monitor sideshows. 

The proposal would also change rules around the circumstances requiring officers to report uses of force and clarify that officers shall pursue people suspected of felonies or violent misdemeanors—except when doing so poses an “unacceptable safety risk for innocent bystanders.”

Lastly, the measure would require the Police Commission to gather community feedback when proposing policies and consider how time-consuming its rules are for officers. The commission already hosts public working groups while revising policies.

“We want reforms to our police department, but unfortunately, members of the Police Commission have gone way too far,” Breed said at her press conference.

Watchdogs Fire Back

Breed was furious with the Police Commission last year when she accused Max Carter-Oberstone, one of her own appointees, of being dishonest. The moment marked a split between Breed and Carter-Oberstone that meant she lost control of the Police Commission. She typically holds sway over the body through her four appointees to the seven-member panel.

Reached by The Standard, Carter-Oberstone and one of his fellow commissioners, Kevin Benedicto, each said that the mayor’s proposal calls for steps that the Police Commission is already taking.

“This is about politics, not public safety,” said Carter-Oberstone, the vice president of the commission. “It is a slapdash, scattershot proposal that is largely redundant of work the commission is already doing.”

Both Carter-Oberstone and Benedicto noted that the Police Commission revised the use-of-force policy last year to reduce reporting requirements for officers. Carter-Oberstone said he and Benedicto also met with 25 officers last week to get their feedback on revising the vehicle pursuit policy.

Benedicto pushed back on the notion that the Police Commission is sacrificing public safety to focus on reform.

“It makes for a good attack and a political ad, but we have worked consistently to make sure that we are enabling our officers to do the best work that they can,” he said.

Breed was joined at her press conference by her allies on the Board of Supervisors, Catherine Stefani, Joel Engardio and Matt Dorsey.

“We can’t just go out and hire 700 police officers tomorrow,” Stefani said. “But we certainly can look at what the Police Commission is doing. We can look at the paperwork. We can look at everything that is preventing the type of policing that we need in this city.”

Dorsey, whose district includes the South of Market neighborhood and who previously served as a spokesperson for the San Francisco Police Department, called the ballot measure “a smart-on-crime approach that will remove needless inefficiencies.”

Engardio, who represents the Sunset and ran the community organization Stop Crime SF before winning the election last November, said the use of cameras and drones will help police “outsmart organized crime.”

“Our police department is a leader in reform, but that shouldn’t get in the way of effective policing,” he said.

The Political Picture

Breed’s proposal has larger political implications than a sole ballot measure in March. She is facing a potentially tough reelection battle in November 2024—anti-poverty nonprofit founder Daniel Lurie and Supervisor Ahsha Safaí have launched campaigns to unseat her—and local polling has shown that many residents consider public safety to be their top concern

Lurie slammed the mayor’s ballot measure as a political maneuver ahead of next year’s election.

“After spending more than five years as mayor blaming everyone but herself for the city’s public safety crisis, the mayor is pointing fingers at a commission and police department that she already controls," Lurie said in a statement Tuesday. "The mayor could have appointed commissioners that would have pursued these policies five years ago when she became mayor, let alone in the five years before that when she was on the Board of Supervisors.”