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Politics & Policy

San Francisco voters want more police powers, new poll shows

A group of police officers in uniform patrol an event, with a crowd and tents in the background.
A new poll from the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce shows strong support for Proposition E, which would empower police to use surveillance technologies and conduct pursuits. | Isaac Ceja/The Standard

A new poll conducted by the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce is showing strong support for two propositions on the March 5 ballot that are poised to increase law enforcement’s powers and create stricter rules surrounding welfare and drug use, data that suggests voters are leaning away from some of the city’s more progressive policies on policing and social services. 

The Chamber found that a significant majority of San Franciscans—61%—would vote yes on Prop. E, which would expand the Police Department’s surveillance capabilities and allow officers to make more vehicle pursuits. Thirty-seven percent are in opposition.

The polling also found that Prop. F, which would require screening and treatment for single adults suspected of being addicted to illegal drugs as a condition of receiving cash assistance, is garnering similarly robust support, with 61% of voters in support and 36% opposed.

Not all of the propositions are seeing such outright support: Proposition C, which incentivizes turning office space into housing by waiving the conversion’s transfer tax, had 53% of voters in support and 42% against. All three propositions were placed on the ballot by Mayor London Breed and need simple majorities to pass.

The Chamber’s polling offers insights into where voters are landing on ballot measures championed by Breed, who faces a tough reelection contest in November. As frustrations run high over public safety, homelessness and other pressing issues, Breed’s popularity has slipped.

A woman in a purple dress speaks at a microphone; another woman smiles in the background.
San Francisco voters appear to be supportive of ballot measures placed on the March 5 ballot by Mayor London Breed. | Source: Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

“I think voters in San Francisco are looking for solutions to address the problems they see in the city,” said Ruth Bernstein, CEO of EMC Research, which conducted 500 interviews for the poll. “They are seeing concerns about crime. They are seeing a number of challenges in the city. And they are open and supportive of changes that are going to address some of those problems.”

Stronger policing and drug policy

Prop. E, which would allow police officers to use drones, more cameras and automated license plate readers and give them more latitude to chase suspects, is seeing a firehose of money coming in from a variety of tech leaders, including Ripple chairman Chris Larsen and venture capitalist Ron Conway. 

The ballot measure would also require the Police Commission, which acts as an oversight group of the department, to gather community feedback if they are implementing new policies. It would also task the watchdog and department to reduce tasks considered time-consuming for police officers.

As of Tuesday, the ballot measure has racked up nearly $1.5 million, according to the city’s Ethics Commission—by far the most cash injected in support of a proposition for the March election. 

One of Breed’s main opponents in the race this November, Daniel Lurie, has established his own committee supporting the measure.

The proposition’s opponents have raised $200,000, with the American Civil Liberties Union speaking out against the measure, describing it as going backward on police reforms and removing teeth from the Police Commission’s oversight role.

“I think it's obvious that people are reacting to the news and information to the ongoing flash mob crimes event and the problem of open drug sales in the Tenderloin and SoMa areas,” said University of San Francisco politics professor James Taylor. “And this was predictable, that the public would act in that particular way. It would be surprising if the public opposed any of the reforms.” 

A man is hunched over, using a straw on a device in his hand, with graffiti and items in the background.
A new poll shows that 61% of San Francisco voters support Prop. F, which would require single adults suspected of being addicted to illegal drugs to undergo screening and agree to treatment as a condition of receiving cash welfare benefits. | Source: Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

The mayor’s other proposition, Prop. F, would require single adults on city welfare payments who are suspected of using illicit drugs to undergo screening and treatment if they want to keep receiving benefits. 

A poll in December showed similar support from the public, with 66% voting yes. Over $500,000 has been raised for the measure, with support coming in part from Ripple’s Larsen. 

Opposition has come from some of the city’s elected officials—including a “no” vote by the San Francisco Democratic Party—with some electeds expressing skepticism over how impactful the rule will be in actually fighting the city’s drug crisis.

“I suspect it reflects frustration and anger,” said Stanford professor Keith Humphreys, an expert on drug addiction, about the public’s support. “We’re not a city overrun by right-wing people. They’ve just come to the end of their rope.”

Downtown recovery and office conversions

The health of downtown San Francisco and policies meant to speed up its languid recovery was also a major theme of the poll results. 

Some 84% of voters support the idea of providing financial incentives for small businesses to stay or relocate downtown, and 81% support tax incentives for helping to fill vacant ground-floor spaces that have increasingly dotted the city’s central business district. 

That backing extends to large companies as well, although to a slightly lesser extent. The poll found that 71% of voters support offering incentives for large businesses to stay or move downtown.

The concept of converting vacant offices to other uses has the support of 85% of voters, with more than three-fourths of respondents agreeing that additional housing should be added to the city’s downtown. 

A close-up of a modern building's facade showing several floors with glass windows and office interiors.
Prop. C would offer tax incentives to convert downtown office buildings into housing. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

However, when it comes to the actual policy prescriptions on the March ballot, opinions were much more mixed.  

Prop. C would offer tax incentives to turn these empty towers into residential developments. If passed, developers would avoid the 5.5%-6% tax when properties worth over $10 million change hands. Only 53% of voters supported the transfer tax pause, compared with 42% in opposition. 

EMC Research’s Bernstein said that the reason why support for Prop. C may be less robust than the policing and drug propositions—despite broad support for increased housing—could simply come down to its lengthy and dull language. That’s in spite of wide support for increasing housing.

“You gotta work through a lot of words there to get at it: This is an incentive to build more housing,” she said.

On Tuesday, the mayor provided an update to her Roadmap to San Francisco’s Future, a plan unveiled last February that included a litany of ideas that have been put in action to reimagine downtown, including cutting red tape around development, a tax freeze for retail, hotels and other sectors, and increasing resources for public safety initiatives.

According to the mayor’s office, future plans include further support of arts, culture and entertainment uses, the launch of new outdoor concerts, pop-ups and small business support and further progress on efforts to bring educational institutions downtown.