On some days in San Francisco, there are no sheriff’s deputies assigned to respond when criminal defendants cut off their ankle monitors or otherwise violate the conditions of their release, according to internal San Francisco Sheriff’s Office documents obtained by The Standard.
On Sunday, only one sworn staff member at the sheriff’s office was available to receive calls for the Community Programs Unit, which supervises court-ordered alternatives to jail like electronic monitoring, the documents showed.
The limited staffing led to a delay in preparing arrest warrants for 17 individuals who either cut off their ankle monitors or had multiple recorded violations, according to Ken Lomba, president of the San Francisco Deputy Sheriffs' Association.
“It delayed it a full day,” Lomba said.
He said deputies were able to get the warrants together and signed by a judge on Monday.
Tara Moriarty, a spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Office, declined to comment on the staffing shortages for the unit—citing safety concerns—but said the department has struggled to fill various roles for some time. As of December, there were 207 vacancies out of 920 sworn staff positions.
“It’s no secret that the SFSO is short-staffed,” Moriarty said in an email to The Standard.
The staffing shortage in the Community Programs Unit is one of several personnel issues at the sheriff’s office, which has dealt with an increase in the jail inmate population over the past year as law enforcement has ramped up arrests of people using and selling drugs in public.
“We have a large negative staffing crisis right now,” Lomba said. “What the department is doing is pulling deputies from all locations to fill positions in the jail—positions that we can’t fill.”
When fully staffed, the Community Programs Unit has seven deputies on hand to respond to ankle monitoring violations, according to Lomba. As staffing issues have arisen in the past three years, the unit has ranged from three to five deputies plus one supervisor assigned to the division. Two of those deputies are required to conduct home visits for out-of-county defendants
‘A Free-for-All for Criminals’
When a violation occurs, a call center that surveils the 392 participants on electronic monitoring calls the sheriff’s office with details on the defendant’s last known whereabouts, Lomba said. Deputies are then dispatched to the location.
“The big problem of this is that you have a unit that is supposed to be doing house checks or random checks to make sure people comply—not only in San Francisco but wherever they live,” Lomba said. “It is almost like a free-for-all for criminals, if no one is watching them when we don’t have staffing.”
He questioned the effectiveness of the program if there are no deputies to monitor violations on a given day.
“If you don’t have deputy sheriffs in Community Programs, the whole ankle monitoring concept is a failure,” Lomba said. “If you don’t have anyone looking over it, making sure they are abiding by the rules, they are just returning suspected criminals to the streets to do whatever they want.”
Lomba added that if staffing issues arise during the business week, it could potentially slow down the process of adding new defendants to the program from the jail after a judge orders them to be put on electronic monitoring.
The San Francisco Public Defender’s Office told The Standard that electronic monitoring has been an overused tactic by San Francisco judges. The office emphasized that judges resort to electronic monitoring in cases where people could instead be released on their own recognizance and connected with programs to ensure their return for court dates.
“No one should be denied release from custody based on supposed staffing issues, especially when we know that the Sheriff’s department has a budget of almost $300 million, the Sheriff has voluntarily deployed 130 deputies outside the jail to engage in the revived war on drugs, and importantly, has been able to monitor people facing more serious charges for months without incident,” the Public Defender’s Office said.
The use of electronic ankle monitoring has recently seeped into the political discourse as this year’s mayoral race heats up.
Last week, Daniel Lurie—one of Mayor London Breed’s main challengers in the November election—said in a meeting with constituents that he would increase funding for the ankle monitoring program so the Sheriff’s Office. That way, deputies could work with other agencies to better track down real-time violations by defendants who violate stay-away orders—like repeat suspected drug dealers in the Tenderloin.
“This administration has failed to give the Sheriff's Department the resources it needs to keep our community safe,” Lurie told The Standard in a statement. “As mayor, I'll ensure law enforcement receives the funding and support they need to reduce 911 response times and better coordinate so individuals who violate the terms of their pretrial release are picked up immediately.”
Implementing Lurie's proposed expansion of ankle monitoring, however, would require agreement from the Sheriff’s Office, the San Francisco district attorney and the courts, which operate independently of City Hall.
The Mayor’s Office said Breed is well aware of the staffing challenges facing the sheriff’s office and has recommended limiting the scope of who gets an ankle monitor.
“Her recommendations around this issue include the prioritization of individuals who live in San Francisco for electronic monitoring because of the relative ease for deputies to conduct supervision, and limit the availability of this tool for individuals who reside outside of San Francisco because of the resulting strain on staffing,” the office said in a statement provided to The Standard. “Until the Department has better capacity to expand its range of monitoring, the Mayor believes that non-San Francisco residents who commit crimes in the City should not be prioritized for release under this program.”
Lomba pushed back on the mayor’s suggestion, saying the priority for the city should be staffing deputies—not limiting who can be released under the program.
“It is out of touch with the problem, which is staffing,” he said. “Her urgency should be to make law enforcement attractive in San Francisco to recruit more deputies and officers. It shouldn’t be trying to re-create the justice system to have fewer law enforcement officers.”